Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

Giant history nerd that I am, I like to read Author’s Notes at the end of historical fictions.  I enjoy seeing which historians they consulted for their own works, see if I recognize any names, and getting ideas about whose works I should check out in the future.  Even before I got through the second chapter of my latest read, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, I knew whose name I was going to find.  And I was right – it was Simon Schama. 

Now, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Schama wrote the definitive historical study of how the Dutch interacted with the wealth of their empire in relation to their Calvinistic world-view.  My own thesis acknowledges Schama’s contribution to historical methodology, and uses his approach to justify my own ‘magpie-like’ use of sources.  His ground-breaking work, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age would literally break the ground (or at least dent it), as it can only be described as brick-like in nature.  The problem is, I hate Simon Schama; I find him a pretentious windbag who loves the sound of his own voice and is incredibly annoying as he takes every opportunity to make people listen to him.  Blargh. 

Now, what does that have to do with The Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier?  Not a whole lot – I just like to take the opportunity to rant about people that annoy me when one presents itself.  However, Chevalier did use Schama’s study as the historical background for her tale, and she used it spectacularly.

The Girl with the Pearl Earring tells the story of Griet, a young woman living in the 17th century Dutch Republic; after her father looses his ability to work, Griet is sent to be a household maid to the master painter Vermeer’s home.  While Griet adjusts to her new life, she and Vermeer develop an oddly chaste, yet highly charged relationship.  All this occurs within the domestic setting of a multi-generational household that adheres closely to class-lines, and less closely to religious division.

Chevalier’s work is a wonderful study of the time and era – the reader can almost smell the market hall Griet shops in, feel the grit in the paints she grinds, and see the quality of the paintings produced by Vermeer in the mind’s eye.  This work is a textual cornucopia that engages all your senses.

Besides all that, Chevalier paints entirely believable and endearing characters.  Griet is a good girl who finds herself in an unenviable position that no one can understand; Vermeer is cold and aloof, yet oddly connected to those around him; his children are either lovable or detestable; and his wife is almost pitiable in weaknesses.  Each character is presented and developed in a believable manner that carries the story forward in enjoyable ways.

In 2003 a movie of the same name was released based on Chevalier’s work.  It’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I can’t remember all the details, but it seems to me that it holds true to the original book; that could possibly be because the original is only a couple hundred pages (an afternoon’s light read).  I’m now curious to go back and re-watch it to see if there is anything completely out of place.  What I do remember, however, is the visual bleakness to most of the film; in that, it hold true to the book.

Final verdict?  I’d definitely say read this book.  It’s not too heavy, but it is engaging and the historical descriptions are interesting.  While I would recommend The Girl with the Pearl Earring, I recommend you avoid Schama’s works (I couldn’t help getting in one last shot, what can I say?).

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