Tracy Chevalier’s novel takes its title from a painting by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and it is this painting that forms the focal point of the novel, or rather the process of creating this painting that Chevalier centres on. Griet is a sixteen year old who leaves her family home and goes to work as a maid for the Vermeers. At first she shows little enjoyment for her new life, apart from the time she spends cleaning her master’s studio. Soon she is mixing the paint and catching the eye of her master’s benefactor, which ultimately leads to her portrait being painted.
Before I started reading Girl with a Pearl Earring I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about picking it up. As is the way with my last few reads I have just randomly picked it up and I am pleased to say I enjoyed it rather more than I was expecting. The novel is told from Griet’s perspective as she leaves her family, who have been driven to poverty by her father’s accident in a tiling factory, and takes on the responsibility of providing for those left at home. Her narrative is easy to follow and engaging and you are quickly swept up in life in the seventeenth century Netherlands and Griet’s everyday life with the Vermeer family, from washing laundry to running errands, from trips to visit her family to a growing relationship with the son of a local butcher. It could be seen as a mundane and normal existence if it want for her relationship with her master, Vermeer.
Vermeer’s benefactor, a lecherous old man, wants a painting with Griet. This sparks jealousy from her master who refuses, leading to him painting a solo portrait. It is clear throughout that Griet is in awe of her master and tenses at his every touch. It is almost sweet reading about her ‘crush’ on Vermeer, perhaps reminiscent of every teenage girls’ crush on some slightly more grown up and glamorous figure in their life. Vermeer’s jealousy of his benefactor leads the reader to suspect something might actually happen between him and Griet, right until the end I was convinced something would. The tension between the two hinted at some romance. His insistence that she be painted alone, the way he protected her against his family all led to this outcome. But I underestimated the ego of an artist. As soon as Vermeer had what he wanted, he was gone. Only what he wanted wasn’t necessarily what I expected.
This is a tale of jealousy, from all sides and all characters, envy and the nature of relationships. I had no idea what this novel would be about, especially as my copy only has critic’s praise, and not a blurb, on the back, but I am glad that it was a narrative I could engage with and enjoy. Griet is a likeable, albeit naive, girl who is caught up with the differences between her new life and her former one and you can’t help but emphasise with her plight and realise how awful life might have been for some maids, especially if their mistress took against them. I can’t say it has been one of my favourite reads of the year, but it is a good read and a lovely easy one for my return to school.