GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING by Tracy Chevalier
Place of Purchase: library loan (followed immediately by an eBay purchase)
Reading Began: late October 2003
Completed Reading: late October 2003
Overall rating: Nine out of ten
Recommendation to others: There are hardly words to describe the tone of this book or the feelings that a reader has while working through the story. It’s just an experience that must be had.
Why I chose to read this book: I read a short review just after its publication, followed soon after by an article about a reading club and their affection for it. Immediately I set out to find a copy of my own. I looked and looked at Half Price Books, but never found a copy. Either I was ahead of its time at that franchise or I simply visited the wrong stores. Perhaps everyone who purchased it loved it as much as me and would never dream of selling it? In the end, it became a permanent fixture on my “To Be Read” library list, but I found myself looking to newer publications after a while.
When Entertainment Weekly’s Fall Movie Preview list was announced in 2003, and I learned that Colin Firth had been cast as Vermeer, I made a point to get my hands on the book. I knew the film would not quite be able to match the imagery and emotion I had heard was present in the book, so I wanted to have those in my head prior to seeing them onscreen. My local library helped me out.
Further reading by this author: The Lady and the Unicorn, Falling Angels, The Virgin Blue
Comments: Tracy Chevalier writes with such visual punch and such impression that I always feel completely absorbed with her stories. Girl With A Pearl Earring is, by far, my favorite. I knew nothing of Johannes Vermeer or his work prior to reading this novel, but by the end of the story, I had fallen for both. It’s a remarkable telling of a story as it might have been, and I was moved in almost every chapter. And while the characters are memorable and vivid, it’s the paintings (and the exposition of them) that makes this book shine. So moving are Chevalier’s descriptions that I could almost sense them tangibly. I have little hope for any other novel coming quite this close to perfection for me as a reader. To be transported in a novel is my greatest joy, and Girl With A Pearl Earring is one of the greatest of these journeys yet.
Favorite Characters: Griet is the heart of the story, so I cannot help but identify with her. But Vermeer is the soul of it. I felt all that Griet felt in relation to him. [Having Colin Firth embody him from this story is just icing.]
While Catharina was unlocking the studio door on the second morning I asked her if I should clean the windows.
“Why not?” she answered sharply. “You do not need to ask me such petty things.”
“Because of the light, madam,” I explained. “It might change the painting if I clean them. You see?”
She did not see. She would not or could not come into the room to look at the painting. It seemed she never entered the stuido. When Tanneke was in the right mood I would have to ask her why. Catharina went downstairs to ask him and called up to me to leave the windows. 1664 (p. 41)
“It is called a camera obscura.”
The words meant nothing to me. I stood aside and watched him unhook a catch and lift up part of the box’s top, which had been divided in two and hinged together. He propped up the lid at an angle so that the box was partly open. There was a bit of glass underneath. He leaned over and peered into the space between the lid and box, then touched the round piece at the end of the smaller box. He seemed to be looking at something, though I didn’t think there could be much in the box to take such interest in.
He stood up and gazed at the corner I had cleaned so carefully, then reached over and closed the middle window’s shutters, so that the room was lit only by the window in the corner.
Then he took off his robe.
I shifted uneasily from one foot to the other.
He removed his hat, placing it on the chair by the easel, and pulled the robe over his head as he leaned over the box again.
I took a step back and glanced at the doorway behind me. Catharina had little will to climb the stairs these days, but I wondered what Maria Thins or Cornelia or anyone would think if they saw us. When I turned back I kept my eyes fixed on his shoes, which were gleaming from the polish I had given them the day before.
He stood up at last and pulled the robe from his head, his hair ruffled. “There, Griet, it is ready. Now you look.” He stepped away from the box and gestured me towards it. I stood rooted to my place.
“Place the robe over your head as I did. Then the image will be stronger. And look at it from this angle so it will not be upside down.”
I did not know what to do. The thought of me covered with his robe, unable to see, and him looking at me all the while, made me feel faint.
But he was my master. I was meant to do as he said.
I pressed my lips together, then stepped up to the box, to the end where the lid had been lifted. I bent over and looked in at the square of milky glass fixed inside. There was a faint drawing of something on it.
He draped his robe gently over my head so that it blocked out all light. It was still warm from him, and smelled of the way brick feels when it has been baked by the sun. I placed my hands on the table to steady myself and closed my eyes for a moment. I felt as if I had drunk my evening beer too quickly.
“What do you see?” I heard him say. 1664 (pp. 56-57)
I reluctantly set out the colors he asked for each morning. One day I put out a blue as well. The second time I laid it out he said to me, “No ultramarine, Griet. Only the colors I asked for. Why did you set it out when I did not ask for it?” He was annoyed.
“I’m sorry, sir. It’s just—” I took a deep breath—”she is wearing a blue skirt. I thought you would want it, rather than leaving it black.”
“When I am ready, I will ask.”
I nodded and turned back to polishing the lion-head chair. My chest hurt. I did not want him to be angry at me.
He opened the middle window, filling the room with cold air.
“Come here, Griet.”
I set my rag on the sill and went to him.
“Look out the window.”
I looked out. It was a breezy day, with clouds disappearing behind the New Church tower.
“What colors are those clouds?”
“Why, white, sir.”
He raised his eyebrows slightly. “Are they?”
I glanced at them. “And grey. Perhaps it will snow.”
“Come, Griet, you can do better than that. Think of your vegetables.”
“My vegetables, sir?”
He moved his head slightly. I was annoying him again. My jaw tightened.
“Think of how you separated the whites. Your turnips and your onions—are they the same white?”
Suddenly I understood. “No. The turnip has green in it, the onion yellow.”
“Exactly. Now, what colors do you see in the clouds?”
“There is some blue in them,” I said after studying them for a few minutes. “And—yellow as well. And there is some green!” I became so excited I actually pointed. I had been looking at clouds all my life, but I felt as if I saw them for the first time at that moment.
He smiled. “You will find there is little pure white in clouds, yet people say they are white. Now do you understand why I do not need the blue yet?” 1665 (pp. 100-101)
I sat for him for the other painting three or four times a week, for an hour or two each time. It was the part of the week I liked best, with his eyes on only me for those hours. I did not mind that it was not an easy pose to hold, that looking sideways for long periods of time gave me headaches. I did not mind when sometimes he had me move my head again and again so that the yellow cloth swung around, so that he could paint me looking as if I had just turned to face him. I did whatever he asked of me.
He was not happy, though. February passed and March arrived, with its days of ice and sun, and he was not happy. He had been working on the painting for almost two months, and though I had not seen it, I thought it must be close to done. He was no longer having me mix quantities of color for it, but used tiny amounts and made few movements with his brushes as I sat. I had thought I understood how he wanted me to be, but now I was not sure. Sometimes he simply sat and looked at me as if he were waiting for me to do something. Then he was not like a painter, but like a man, and it was hard to look at him.
One day he announced suddenly, as I was sitting in my chair, “This will satisfy van Ruijven, but not me.”
I did not know what to say. I could not help him if I had not seen the painting. “May I look at the painting, sir?”
He gazed at me curiously.
“Perhaps I can help,” I added, then wished I had not. I was afraid I had become too bold.
“All right,” he said after a moment.
I got up and stood behind him. He did not turn round, but sat very still. I could hear him breathing slowly and steadily.
The painting was like none of his others. It was just of me, of my head and shoulders, with no tables or curtains, no windows or powder-brushes to soften and distract. He had painted me with my eyes wide, the light falling across my face but the left side of me in shadow. I was wearing blue and yellow and brown. The cloth wound round my head made me look not like myself, but like Griet from another town, even from another country altogether. The background was black, making me appear very much alone, although I was clearly looking at someone. I seemed to be waiting for something I did not think would ever happen.
He was right—the painting might satisfy van Ruijven, but something was missing from it.
I knew before he did. When I saw what was needed—that point of brightness he had used to catch the eye in other paintings—I shivered. This will be the end, I thought.
I was right. 1666 (pp. 190-191)