Girl With a Pearl Earring (Chevalier)

Girl With a Pearl Earring
Tracy Chevalier, 2000
Penguin Group USA
240 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780452282155

In mid-career, the renowned 17th century Baroque artist Johannes Vermeer painted "Girl with a Pearl Earring," which has been called the Dutch Mona Lisa. Girl with a Pearl Earring tells the story behind the advent of this famous painting, all the while depicting life in 17th century Delft, a small Dutch city with a burgeoning art community.

The novel centers on Griet, the Protestant daughter of a Delft tile painter who lost his sight in a kiln accident. In order to bring income to her struggling family, Griet must work as a maid for a more financially sound family. When Jan Vermeer and his wife approve of Griet as a maid for their growing Catholic household, she leaves home and quickly enters adult life. The Vermeer household, with its five children, grandmother and long-time servant, is ready to make Griet's working life difficult. Though her help is sorely needed, her beauty and innocence are both coveted and resented. Vermeer's wife Catharina, long banished from her husband's studio for her clumsiness and lack of genuine interest in art, is immediately wary of Griet, a visually talented girl who exhibits signs of artistic promise. Taneke, the faithful servant to the grandmother, proves her protective loyalty by keeping a close eye on Griet's every move.

The artist himself, however, holds another view entirely of the young maid. Recognizing Griet's talents, Vermeer takes her on as his studio assistant and surreptitiously teaches her to grind paints and develop color palettes in the remote attic. Though reluctant to overstep her boundaries in the cagey Vermeer household, Griet is overjoyed both to work with her intriguing master and to lend some breath to her natural inclinations—colors and composition—neither of which she had ever been able to develop. Together, Vermeer and Griet conceal the apprenticeship from the family until Vermeer's most prominent patron demands that the lovely maid be the subject of his next commissioned work. Vermeer must paint Griet—an awkward, charged situation for them both.

Chevalier's account of the artistic process—from the grinding of paints to the inclusion and removal of background objects—lay at the core of the novel. Her inventive portrayal of this tumultuous time, when Protestantism began to dominate Catholicism and the growing bourgeoisie took the place of the Church as patrons of the arts, draws the reader into a lively, if little known, time and place in history. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—October 19, 1962
Where—Washington, D.C., USA
Education—B.A., Oberlin College (USA); M.A., University of
  East Anglia (UK)
Currently—lives in London, UK

Raised in Washington D.C., Tracy Chevalier moved to England in 1984 after graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio. Initially intending to attend one semester abroad, she studied for a semester and never returned. After working as a literary editor for several years, Chevalier chose to pursue her own writing career and in 1994, she graduated with a degree in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

The Virgin Blue (her first novel), was chosen by W. H. Smith for its Fresh Talent promotion in 1997. She lives in London with her husband and son and hopes to see all of Vermeer's thirty-five known paintings in her lifetime (thus far, she's seen twenty-eight of them). Tracy Chevalier first gained attention by imagining the answer to one of art history's small but intriguing questions: Who is the subject of Johannes Vermeer's painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring"?

It was a bold move on Chevalier's part to build a story around the somewhat mysterious 17th-century Dutch painter and his unassuming but luminous subject; but the author's purist approach helped set the tone. In an interview with her college's alumni magazine, she commented:

I decided early on that I wanted [Girl] to be a simple story, simply told, and to imitate with words what Vermeer was doing with paint. That may sound unbelievably pretentious, but I didn't mean it as "I can do Vermeer in words." I wanted to write it in a way that Vermeer would have painted: very simple lines, simple compositions, not a lot of clutter, and not a lot of superfluous characters.

Chevalier achieved her objective expertly, helped by the fact that she employed the famous Girl as narrator of the story. Sixteen-year-old Griet becomes a maid in Vermeer's tumultuous household, developing an apprentice relationship with the painter while drawing attention from other men and jealousy from women. Praise for the novel poured in: "Chevalier's exploration into the soul of this complex but naïve young woman is moving, and her depiction of 17th-century Delft is marvelously evocative," wrote the New York Times Book Review. The Wall Street Journal called it "vibrant and sumptuous."

Girl with a Pearl Earring was not Chevalier's first exploration of the past. In The Virgin Blue, her U.K.-published first novel (U.S. edition, 2003), her modern-day character Ella Turner goes back to 16th-century France in order to revisit her family history. As a result, she finds parallels between herself and a troubled ancestor — a woman whose fate had been unknown until Ella discovers it.

With 2001's Falling Angels, Chevalier — a former reference book editor who began her fiction career by enrolling in the graduate writing program at University of East Anglia — continued to tell stories of women in the past. But she has been open about the fact that compared to writing Girl with a Pearl Earring, the "nightmare" creating of her third novel was difficult and fraught with complications, even tears. The pressure of her previous success, coupled with a first draft that wasn't working out, made Chevalier want to abandon the effort altogether. Then, reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible led Chevalier to change her approach. "[Kingsolver] did such a fantastic job using different voices and I thought, with Falling Angels, I've told it in the wrong way," Chevalier told Bookpage magazine. "I wanted it to have lots of perspective."

With that, Chevalier began a rewrite of her tale about two families in the first decade of 20th-century London. With more than ten narrators (some more prominent than others), Falling Angels has perspective in spades and lots to maintain interest over its relatively brief span: a marriage in trouble, a girlhood friendship born at Highgate Cemetery, a woman's introduction to the suffragette movement. A spirited, fast-paced story, Falling Angels again earned critical praise. "This moving, bittersweet book flaunts Chevalier's gift for creating complex characters and an engaging plot," Book magazine concluded.

Chevalier continues to pursue her fascination with art and history in her fourth novel, on which she is currently at work. According to Oberlin Alumni Magazine, she is basing the book on the "Lady and the Unicorn" medieval tapestries that hang in Paris's Cluny Museum.

From a 2003 Barnes & Noble interview:

• Chevalier's interest in Vermeer extends beyond a fascination with one painting. "I have always loved Vermeer's paintings," Chevalier writes on her Web site. "One of my life goals is to view all thirty-five of them in the flesh. I've seen all but one — ‘Young Girl Reading a Letter' — which hangs in Dresden. There is so much mystery in each painting, in the women he depicts, so many stories suggested but not told. I wanted to tell one of them."

• Chevalier moved from the States to London in 1984. "I intended to stay six months," she writes. "I'm still here." She lives near Highgate Cemetery with her husband and son.

• The film version of Girl with a Pearl Earring was released 2003 with Scarlett Johansson in the role of Griet and Colin Firth playing Vermeer.

When asked what book most influenced her life as a writer, here is her response:

It's impossible to list just one! I would say more generally— books that I read when I was a girl, that showed me how different worlds can be brought to life for a reader. My aunt likes to quote that when I was young I once said I was never alone when I had a book to read. (I don't remember saying that, but my aunt isn't prone to lying.) Those companions would be books like the Laura Ingalls Wilder series; Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery; A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle; The Egypt Game by Zylpha Keatley Snyder; "The Dark Is Rising" series by Susan Cooper; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken plus subsequent books in that series; and of course The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

• Other favorite books include: Pride and Prejudice (Austen), The Sound and the Fury (Faulkner), Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger), Alias Grace (Atwood), and Song of Solomon (Morrison). (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews 
Thank goodness a picture can be worth more than a thousand words. Tracey Chevalier has written a vibrant, sumptuous novel about the enigmatic subject of a painting. Ms. Chevalier doesn't put a foot wrong in this triumphant work, the latest of several recent novels based on Vermeer paintings. It is a beautifully written tale that mirrors the elegance of the painting that inspired it.
Katie Flatley - Wall Street Journal

Absorbing novel ... as Chevalier's writing skill and her knowledge of seventeenth-century Delft are such that she creates a world reminiscent of a Vermeer interior: suspended in a particular moment, it transcends its time and place.
The New Yorker

Girl With a Pearl Earring is an engaging fictionalization. Fittingly, Chevalier's writing style adopts a painterly approach: The elegant prose evokes contemplation, the pace is slow and cumulative the drama emotional rather than visceral. Looking at the painting after having read the novel. The reader thinks, Yes, Chevalier got it right - that was the story hidden behind those eyes, silent for centuries.
San Francisco Chronicle

It's great strength is its projection of a complex, emotional universe onto an intimate canvas. The details, like the world of colors that Vermeer found in a single fold of white cloth, add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Set in 17th-century Delft, this historical novel intertwines the art of Johannes Vermeer with his life and that of a maiden servant in his household. From the few facts known about the artist, Chevalier creates the reality of the Netherlands. The parallel themes of tradesman/artist, Protestant/Catholic, and master/servant are intricately woven into the fabric of the tale. The painters of the day spent long hours in the studio, devising and painting re-creations of everyday life. The thrust of the story is seen through the eyes of Griet, the daughter of a Delft tile maker who lost his sight and, with it, the ability to support his family. Griet's fate is to be hired out as a servant to the Vermeer household. She has a wonderful sense of color, composition, and orderliness that the painter Vermeer recognizes. And, slowly, Vermeer entrusts much of the labor of creating the colored paints to Griet. Throughout, narrator Ruth Ann Phimister gives a strong performance as the enchanting voice of Griet. Highly recommended. —Kristin M. Jacobi, Eastern Connecticut State Univ., Willimantic
Library Journal

After her father is hurt in an accident, sixteen-year-old Griet helps support her family by working as a maid for the Johannes Vermeer family. Griet's life there is difficult because she is Protestant and the Vermeer family is Catholic, and also because both Vermeer's wife, Catharina, and one of his daughters seem to resent the young maid. As Griet gradually learns more about Vermeer's methods of painting, the artist begins to take an interest in the girl. He even allows her to help grind the colors used in his paints and asks for her thoughts on his work. When Vermeer offers Griet the chance to pose as the model for one of his paintings, the girl makes a decision that changes her life forever as she becomes the girl with a pearl earring. Author Chevalier has woven a lyrical story of art and one girl's coming of age in seventeenth-century Holland. Chevalier's writing glows with the same luminosity that infuses Vermeer's paintings, and she skillfully evokes the book's historical setting and gives readers a fascinating protagonist. Teens, especially those who enjoy historical fiction, are certain to be drawn to Griet's story as she struggles with her responsibilities to her family, deals with the romantic attentions of a local merchant's son, and tries to find her own place in the world.
John Charles - VOYA

Discussion Questions 
1. Do you think Griet was typical of other girls her age? In what ways? How did she differ? Did you find her compassionate or selfish? Giving or judgmental?

2. In many ways, the primary relationship in this novel appears to be between Griet and Vermeer. Do you think this is true? How do you feel about Vermeer's relationship with his wife? How does that come into play?

3. Peering into 17th century Delft shows a small, self-sufficient city. Where do you think the many-pointed star at the city's center pointed toward? What was happening elsewhere at that time?

4. Discuss the ways religion affected Griet's relationship with Vermeer. His wife? Maria Thins?

5. Maria Thins obviously understood Vermeer's art more than his wife did. Why do you think this was the case? Do you think she shared Griet's talents?

6. Do you think Griet made the right choice when she married the butcher's son? Did she have other options?

7. How is Delft different to or similar to your town or city? Are the social structures comparable?

7. Though Girl with a Pearl Earring appears to be about one man and woman, there are several relationships at work. Which is the most difficult relationship? Which is the most promising?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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