Girl in Hyacinth Blue Paperback – 3 May 2001
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'This is not just another book with a Vermeer on the dust jacket...It is an illuminating meditation on the nature of art....This beautifully imagined and written book...is a work of art itself' Sunday Telegraph
This is not just another book with a Vermer on the dust jacket...[but] an illuminating meditation on the nature of art....This beautifully imagined and written book...is a work of art itself (Sunday Telegraph)
'Susan Vreeland's...imaginitive, deeply moving triumph' Ms London
Subtle and atmospheric...an impressive debut. (Publishers Weekly)
Intelligent, searching and unusual, the novel is filled with luminous moments; like the painting it describes so well, it has a way of lingering in the reader's mind (Katy Emck, New York Times Review of Books)
A work of art (New York Post)
'A work of art' New York Post
'Intelligent, searching and unusual, the novel is filled with luminous moments; like the painting it describes so well, it has a way of lingering in the reader's mind' New York Times Book Review
'Subtle and atmospheric...an impressive debut' Publishers Weekly
'Wonderful...extraordinarily skilled...deft, perceptive...deeply moving' Kirkus Reviews
A jewel of a novel about art, beauty and desire.See all Product description
Top customer reviews
At the same time, each episode also traces the ownership of the painting and gives glimpses of the role of art in the lives of ordinary people. Beginning with the dilemma faced by a teacher who acquired the painting from his father, a low level Nazi functionary during World War II, it then moves successively backward to the stories of the Jewish family which owned it, to a father who bought it to commemorate an early, lost love, and backward still to an the unhappy French wife of a functionary stationed in Holland and enjoying an erotic interlude. Ultimately, it regresses to the life of the Vermeer family and the daughter who sat for the painting. Girl in Hyacinth Blue is a gem of understated complexity. Mary Whipple
What a clever idea. When I got to the end, I read it backwards, chapter by chapter.
Engelbrecht's father's dying words had been, "An eye like a blue pearl," referring to the female figure in the painting, that of a young woman in a blue smock and rust-colored skirt, standing beside an open window. Although Cornelius feels captivated by the painting, he also feels a sense of shame at how it came to be in his father's possession.
From the revelation of what, exactly, the elder Engelbrecht did, we then move backward through time from the point of view of one owner to another, all the way back to the painting's point of origin. Each time the painting changes hands, there are high hopes, a time of optimism, until it finally falls into Cornelius' hands and he realizes how it has been tainted by history. The single thread running through each story, the one that connects each character, is this lovely painting, the painting of the Girl in Hyacinth Blue.
One of the most fascinating things about this lovely little book are the details of family life and the history that can be found in each vignette. Like the painting, each "story-within-the-novel" seems to be a frozen moment in time and Vreeland's language in painting her own word portrait is both formal and concise as she offers lush detail and wonderful insight. Much in the book is tender and sad and it truly touches the heart. We feel the pain of these characters and identify with their suffering. They are real people and we can almost believe the painting is real as well.
The central section of the book, and the one that is most fascinating, is called "Morningshine," and focuses on a Dutch family who are isolated in their farmhouse and surrounded by floodwaters. The following passage is indicative of Vreeland's beautiful, but rather spare, prose:
"Saskia opened the back shutters and looked out the upstairs south window early the second morning after the flood. Their farmhouse was an island apart from the world. Vapors of varying gray made the neighboring four farmhouses indistinct, yet there was a shine on the water like the polished pewter of her mother's kitchen back home. Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear, and it was so, she thought. But it wasn't so. And the cow would have to stay upstairs with them until it was so, however long that was, stay upstairs messing the floor and taking up half the room."
The above-passage clearly shows Vreeland's talent for evoking a sense of time and place. This is in evidence throughout the book and makes it highly atmospheric and charged with the energy of the times.
Moments of serendipity are scattered through Girl in Hyacinth Blue as are the harsh realities of the times: hunger, poverty, misery. At one point, in Saskia's story, she is scolded by her husband for feeding their hungry children the seed potatoes he intended to plant in the spring.
This is a fascinating and extremely well-written book, a little masterpiece, just like the Vermeer it creates. It is a book that will appeal to readers of popular literature and those with more literary tastes as well as to art lovers everywhere. Beauty, says Vreeland, is necessary to life. Judging from the beauty of this book, beauty might be just as necessary to life as are next season's seed potatoes.
I also very much enjoyed the fact that the book started in present day and worked backwards to when it was painted and then finished with the story of the girl in the picture.
Vreeland has a style of writing that flows very well and that makes her stories incredibly captivating to read. The fact that each chapter seems to start with a bit of a mystery, asking the question where the painting had been before it arrived at its current location, is what keeps you from putting it down at the end of the chapter.
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Just to be clear, I'm reviewing the unabridged audio CD version of Girl in Hyacinth...Read more