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Girl with a Pearl Earring: A Novel Paperback – January 1, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

With precisely 35 canvases to his credit, the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer represents one of the great enigmas of 17th-century art. The meager facts of his biography have been gleaned from a handful of legal documents. Yet Vermeer's extraordinary paintings of domestic life, with their subtle play of light and texture, have come to define the Dutch golden age. His portrait of the anonymous Girl with a Pearl Earring has exerted a particular fascination for centuries--and it is this magnetic painting that lies at the heart of Tracy Chevalier's second novel of the same title.

Girl with a Pearl Earring centers on Vermeer's prosperous Delft household during the 1660s. When Griet, the novel's quietly perceptive heroine, is hired as a servant, turmoil follows. First, the 16-year-old narrator becomes increasingly intimate with her master. Then Vermeer employs her as his assistant--and ultimately has Griet sit for him as a model. Chevalier vividly evokes the complex domestic tensions of the household, ruled over by the painter's jealous, eternally pregnant wife and his taciturn mother-in-law. At times the relationship between servant and master seems a little anachronistic. Still, Girl with a Pearl Earring does contain a final delicious twist.

Throughout, Chevalier cultivates a limpid, painstakingly observed style, whose exactitude is an effective homage to the painter himself. Even Griet's most humdrum duties take on a high if unobtrusive gloss:

I came to love grinding the things he brought from the apothecary--bones, white lead, madder, massicot--to see how bright and pure I could get the colors. I learned that the finer the materials were ground, the deeper the color. From rough, dull grains madder became a fine bright red powder and, mixed with linseed oil, a sparkling paint. Making it and the other colors was magical.
In assembling such quotidian particulars, the author acknowledges her debt to Simon Schama's classic study The Embarrassment of Riches. Her novel also joins a crop of recent, painterly fictions, including Deborah Moggach's Tulip Fever and Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Can novelists extract much more from the Dutch golden age? The question is an open one--but in the meantime, Girl with a Pearl Earring remains a fascinating piece of speculative historical fiction, and an appealingly new take on an old master. --Jerry Brotton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The scant confirmed facts about the life of Vermeer, and the relative paucity of his masterworks, continues to be provoke to the literary imagination, as witnessed by this third fine fictional work on the Dutch artist in the space of 13 months. Not as erotic or as deviously suspenseful as Katharine Weber's The Music Lesson, or as original in conception as Susan Vreeland's interlinked short stories, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Chevalier's first novel succeeds on its own merits. Through the eyes of its protagonist, the modest daughter of a tile maker who in 1664 is forced to work as a maid in the Vermeer household because her father has gone blind, Chevalier presents a marvelously textured picture of 17th-century Delft. The physical appearance of the city is clearly delineated, as is its rigidly defined class system, the grinding poverty of the working people and the prejudice against Catholics among the Protestant majority. From the very first, 16-year-old narrator Griet establishes herself as a keen observer who sees the world in sensuous images, expressed in precise and luminous prose. Through her vision, the personalities of coolly distant Vermeer, his emotionally volatile wife, Catharina, his sharp-eyed and benevolently powerful mother-in-law, Maria Thins, and his increasing brood of children are traced with subtle shading, and the strains and jealousies within the household potently conveyed. With equal skill, Chevalier describes the components of a painting: how colors are mixed from apothecary materials, how the composition of a work is achieved with painstaking care. She also excels in conveying the inflexible class system, making it clear that to members of the wealthy elite, every member of the servant class is expendable. Griet is almost ruined when Vermeer, impressed by her instinctive grasp of color and composition, secretly makes her his assistant, and later demands that she pose for him wearing Catharina's pearl earrings. While Chevalier develops the tension of this situation with skill, several other devices threaten to rob the narrative of its credibility. Griet's ability to suggest to Vermeer how to improve a painting demands one stretch of the reader's imagination. And Vermeer's acknowledgment of his debt to her, revealed in the denouement, is a blatant nod to sentimentality. Still, this is a completely absorbing story with enough historical authenticity and artistic intuition to mark Chevalier as a talented newcomer to the literary scene. Agent, Deborah Schneider.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Plume (January 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0452282152
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452282155
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,145 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15,355 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Tracy is the author of seven bestselling historical novels, including the international hit GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, which has sold over 4 million copies and been made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth. American by birth, British by geography, she lives in London with her husband and son and cat. Her most recent novel, THE LAST RUNAWAY, is her first novel to be set in the United States, and she learned how to make quilts for it. Tracy is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and has honorary doctorates from her alma maters Oberlin College and the University of East Anglia. Her website will tell you more about her and her books.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

263 of 275 people found the following review helpful By Miranda F. on March 30, 2000
Format: Hardcover
In a thrilling emulation of Jan Vermeer's artistic style, Tracy Chevalier uses scenes drawn from everyday life and painstaking attention to detail to tell the story of Griet, a 16-year-old girl who is required by her family's misfortunes to become a maid in the Vermeer household.
I devoured the book the first time through, then read it again to savor the starkly beautiful language and the highly sensual account of 17th century life in a busy Dutch household. On both forays, I drank in the vivid descriptions of Vermeer's paintings and his creative process, from the positioning of his models to the grinding of bone and lead, massicot, madder and ochre, to make his pigments.
To those who complained that nothing happened or that the book was predictable, let me say, this was never meant to be a suspense story in the conventional sense. That an event could be foreseen doesn't render it improperly drawn. The magnetism of this tale is not its ability to surprise us with plot twists but to show the complex and fascinating interplay among people of different stations and sensibilities. Chevalier demonstrates her considerable skill in presenting Griet to be at the same time naive and intelligent, hemmed in by her lack of status and strong of spirit. Her resigned frustration over the many slights and unfair situations she must deal with strikes me as the only sensible option for one who must continue in employment for the sake of those she supports. Though I can't imagine Griet describing herself as anything but ordinary, her attention to detail--as keen in its own way as Vermeer's--and her understanding of the personalities and motives of those around her show her to be a remarkable young woman.
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150 of 157 people found the following review helpful By David Kusumoto on April 9, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"Girl With a Pearl Earring" is the first major novel I have read since John Irving's "The World According to Garp" more than 20 years ago. As a journalist, I can't explain my aversion to fiction, other than to say that anything akin to "once upon a time" is already six feet under to me. Truth has always seemed stranger than fiction.

I was attracted to this book for one reason. I was at the Maurithuis Museum at the Hague in the Netherlands in 1996 and saw Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and "A View of Delft" (both pictured on the book's dust jacket) in person. They are the most unforgettable paintings I have ever seen. Vermeer's paintings are incredibly hypnotic, drawing us into a time and place that no longer exists. By virtue of thousands of brush strokes, we are pulled into a time warp which places us into a scene the same surreal way that an old photograph does.

This is what author Tracy Chevalier has wonderfully achieved. Unlike other paintings riddled with religious motifs, nearly all of Vermeer's 35 known works have the ability to force you to think, "Yes, this must have been what ordinary life in Holland was like more than 300 years ago." And one can be quite moved by this even if one loathes cheap sentiment.

The book's triumph is taking the tangible, that is, the painting which still resides in the Netherlands -- fusing it with what historians know about life in 17th century Holland -- and then concocting something that not only is believable, but plausible, even though our minds are telling us, "But this is still a piece of fiction."

Griet, our heroine, does seems mature beyond her years. Yet her thoughts are not unbelievable when we remember our own youth, what scared us, moved us, what made us care about what others thought.
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75 of 78 people found the following review helpful By E. Bukowsky HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 22, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"Girl with a Pearl Earring," by Tracy Chevalier, is a story set in Delft, Holland in the 17th Century. A lovely sixteen-year-old named Griet, whose family has suffered financial setbacks, is sent to be a maidservant in the home of the great Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. Griet finds herself drawn to the world of Vermeer--a world of light, color, beauty and perfect composition. Griet shows an aptitude for understanding art and she gradually begins to assist Vermeer in his painting. Griet's involvement in Vermeer's art sets the stage for family conflict. (The title of the novel comes from a Vermeer painting that is known as the Dutch Mona Lisa because of the enigmatic young woman in the portrait.) This novel is a small gem and it is an immensely satisfying work of fiction. Chevalier perfectly captures the life of 17th Century Delft, with its sharp religious and class distinctions, and her nuanced dialogue and descriptive passages are beautifully textured. In fact, "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is like a Vermeer portrait. It is expressive, subtle and meaningful. I highly recommend this book for people who are fascinated by art and who enjoy historical fiction.
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65 of 69 people found the following review helpful By on December 29, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I had the pleasure of discovering "Girl" in an Advanced Reading Copy. A small gem of a book, as lustrous and lovely and the pearl of its title, I recommend this first novel wholeheartedly. Tracy Chevalier's first novel speaks in the lovely voice of her maidservant character, who transports its reader to seventeeh century Delft and Vermeer's home and studio. It's the kind of book that you want to run your hand over its cover each time you close it.
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