‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’ is the first book by Tracy Chevalier that I have ever read, a couple of years ago. This time I re-read it as it was March book of the month in my book club. Although I remember some of the plot of the novel and the overall atmosphere, there were many important and simply well written details that I felt like I was reading for the first time. At the end, I must say that while I still enjoy Chevalier’s writing and her approach to writing overall and this book in particular, reading it this time did not leave me as impressed as the first time I read it. I still think it is a good book, but falls more into the category of an easy afternoon read, rather than a profound revelation.
The story is set is 17th century Delft and follows Griete, a 16-year-old girl who becomes a maid in the house of painter Vermeer. As her father is left blind from an accident, she is used to cleaning in a way that leaves thing untouched and is able to return everything to the way it was. This skill is something that a painter like Vermeer needs in his studio while in the process of painting. Very early on, Griete sees the dynamics between the inhabitants of the house come in to play, and she has to navigate the attention of men around her while also maintaining her position in the house. Additional pressure on her is the fact that her maid pay is actually supporting her family. The setting and the plot of the novel is decent, but where Chevalier excels for me were the numerous descriptions of Vermeer’s studio and his processes of making colors, painting and the attitude towards painters. Given that this is a novel about one particular painting, I did not mind that and actually consider it an advantage for Chevalier’s writing. It is true that at times, the plot of the novel was somewhat slow, so if you are looking for plot heavy book, this may not be the best option.
During the book club, one of the criticism of the novel was how narrow the perspective was. However, I think that this was very much done on purpose. Our narrator is Griete, a 16-year-old girl who is functionally illiterate and uneducated. Griete is extremely socially intelligent and is able to really see and understand the world around her, but this world is very small. With the exception of the occasional errand to the butchers or the fish monger, Griete’s existence is largely constricted to her new and her parents’ house. With that in mind, it is not hard to understand and believe that she would indeed romanticize Vermeer to the degree she did. It is also not surprising that her best moments were the tasks of helping him with the preparation of the paints he needed. For me, it was no surprise that this is largely a domestic novel, bound by the same boundaries that Griete faced in her life.
Speaking of Griete, I really believe that both as a narrator and protagonist, she is successful. Her lack of education and awareness of her position is present in every page. I also think that she is a bit of a sad character, as her faith is decided for her time and time again. Majority of the story, she does not have a voice loud enough to speak for herself due to her socioeconomic position as well as her gender. I mean, at the end, she is married to the butcher, who truth be told is not the worst man in the world, so that her family can have access to meat and overall more financial security. However, I feel like this is a common theme with all the characters in the novel. Although it may seem they have a resemblance of a choice, the reality is that they are all stuck in their lives, whether financially, materially, ethically or some other way. It could be argued that they are less stuck than Griete, but it does not diminish that none of them are really living the lives with full freedom. This is perhaps the most evident in the fact that Vermeer has to paint pictures he does not want because his rich patron wants him to and as a provider to the house, it is his job to get the money in the house and this is the way he does it.
Some time ago, I wrote that McEwan has clearly done a lot of work to make his novel ‘Machines Like Me’ realistic in terms of science, but that he kind of wanted it to be too apearent. I did not feel the same with Chevalier. While it is clear that she did do research into the historical circumstances of 17th century Netherlands, especially in terms of social class, this is far from a history text box. Instead, it feels like Chevalier weaved the historical fact she had access to with fictional characters that feel like they could have easily existed at that time and place. In fact, this kind of approach of writing historical fiction is what she is known for and I think that she does it really well. By the end of the novel, she clearly depicted the world that our characters walked in. This is not the account of major historical events that happened at the time, but rather a story of one simple woman and a painting. In that sense, I would call this novel a success.
At the end, it does not seem like a whole lot has changed or that anything truly remarkable has happened. Yes, the maid did wear the earrings and got fired for it. But despite the scandal this has caused, the world kept turning and Griete went to the only place she still had place to go-the butcher’s. This marriage does not seem like a particularly happy, but also not as a particularly unhappy one. It seems like Griete did simply what was expected of her from the start and provided for her family, gave birth to children and continued working hard.
I am a big fan of historical fiction, especially those depicting the life of regular people, and I think that Chevalier is one of the best contemporary authors of this genre. If you read and like ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’, the next book I would recommend by her is ‘The Virgin Blue’. That book is simply heartbreaking.
Did you read this book or anything else by Chevalier? Let me know!