About a Girl

Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
Grade: B+

Girl With a Pearl Earring is a fictionalized account of how the famous Vermeer painting of the same name came to be. The Girl is a young Protestant woman named Griet. Her father was blinded in a horrible accident, and now she must support her family by working as a maid for the Catholic family of Johannes Vermeer.

Note: spoilers ahead.

I was immediately inclined to like Griet, because she had her own special way of looking at things. After cutting up vegetables for stew, she arranged them in a circle so that each type had its own section, “like a slice of pie.” She separated the orange and purple because, as she said, “The colors fight when they are side by side.” She also found clever ways to clean and dust Vermeer’s studio while making it look like she hadn’t moved anything. She was a smart, responsible girl and she knew her place.

But in order to believe the story, you must perceive Griet as a woman of passionate feelings. That is one way in which the novel failed. Griet would do something that seemed passionate, like slap someone, but she remained emotionally detached. For example, she felt that if she wore her hair free that it would let out her passionate side. When Vermeer accidentally saw her hair, she suddenly abandoned all propriety, went out to find her boyfriend, and let him have his way with her in an alleyway. All she said about the experience was this—“He gave me pain, but when I remembered my hair loose around my shoulders in the studio, I felt something like pleasure too. Afterwards, . . . I washed myself with vinegar.”

Vermeer, too, should have been passionate in order to paint as he did, and yet he was distant and decidedly unlikable in the way he commanded people to do his bidding with no consideration of the consequences. There was a climatic scene where Griet asked Vermeer to place the pearl earring into her ear. It was presumably supposed to be a symbolically sexual act, but since we had just read about how her ear was swollen and infected, it wasn’t entirely pleasant to imagine. It was in other ways an unsatisfactory love scene. Vermeer forced her to pierce her other ear (the one that isn’t shown in the painting), then he quickly finished the painting and sent her on her way. This was no thrilling sexual experience for Griet. It was wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

There were some other things that were hard to believe. As Griet told us early on, “It was not a house where secrets could be kept easily.” Yet most of the people in the house had secrets, some of which were kept for the duration of the novel. I found myself often wondering how Griet could assist Vermeer in making his paints without the whole world knowing. She reeked of linseed oil, her hands almost certainly must have been stained, and she disappeared for hours on end, and yet most of the family members didn’t notice.

I also found myself puzzled by some of the social details, such as the class and religious differences between Griet’s family and the Vermeers, and why Griet’s mother had to put aside her pride in the matter of Griet dating a butcher’s son. I blame my own ignorance, but then again, how can the average person be expected to know much about the society of 17th century Delft? A little more help from the author would have been appreciated.

So, after complaining about these things, how come it still gets a decent grade? I enjoyed it overall and I think that it is an educational book. I feel like I could now recognize at least a few of Vermeer’s paintings, and I will remember details about where and when he lived. The story is helping to keep that information in my brain in a way that simply reading the names and dates could not. There is a lot of value in that, and I recommend Girl With a Pearl Earring for that reason.

P.S. I also watched the movie version starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johannson, and I recommend it because Firth is the master of the smoldering look and he puts it to excellent use here.

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