Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring
Looking closely at the famous painting by Vermeer, one wonders at the model: Who was she? Where did her unusual headdress come from? What is she looking at? What feelings animates the face of this "Dutch Mona Lisa"? Why is she wearing a pearl earring when the rest of her outfit seems to identify her as a maid? These are the questions that Tracy Chevalier must have asked herself, when she decided to write a novel about the Girl with a Pearl Earring.
With the few biographical details known of Vermeer and a lot of imagination, Chevalier has created a lively picture of 17th century Delft, settled in the household of the Master, composed of himself, his sulky wife Catharina, their numerous children and his despotic but fair mother-in-law Maria Thins.
When Griet, a sixteen-years-old innocent girl, whose family cannot support her anymore, is hired by the Master’s wife to help with the household chores, she knows from the beginning that a hard time is awaiting her. She has to deal with the lunatic temper of Tanneke, the other maid who wants to assert her superior position, the cunning and meanness of Cornelia, one of the painter’s daughter and the jealousy of his wife who, unlike Griet, is not allowed in the Master’s studio, because of her extreme clumsiness.
The only consolation Griet finds in her situation is the time spent in the studio, where she is asked to clean without moving the objects carefully displayed for the background of a painting. Despite her lack of education, Griet shares with Vermeer an ability to see better than average people; she intuitively knows the colors that "fights" when put side by side, and senses what small details could improve the general appearance of a painting. As Vermeer gradually acknowledges her skills, he allows her closer to his creative world, letting her run errands for him or teaching her how to grind colors, until she eventually goes "through the looking glass", becoming herself the "object" of a painting.
Swallowed by the selfish and magic world of the artist, Griet is constantly reminded by the others of her real place, and her position as a maid is threatened.
Chevalier did a great job making the young girl the narrative voice of the story. Since she is very innocent, she does not always foresee what the people surrounding her are aiming at, and we sometimes can only infer what she herself not fully understands. Her relationship to the painter is interesting in that respect, as she quickly develops an overwhelming admiration and feelings of love for him whereas there’s a touch of Pygmalion in his behavior towards her. The novel reminds at times of Henry James’s short stories dealing with art and perception, such as The Story of a Masterpiece, The Lesson of the Master or The Real Thing.
Girl with a Pearl Earring is a very convincing achievement, leading us to believe that the author has in fact uncovered the truth behind the painting. The book is at the same time entertaining and informative, making the reader want to look with a new eye at Vermeer’s paintings. Sharing with her two main characters a clever vision of art, Chevalier has translated in words the pictorial world of Vermeer, making it come to life for the great pleasure of the reader.