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Girl With a Pearl Earring Paperback – 11 Sep 2014
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'A portrait of radiance…Tracy Chevalier brings the real artist Vermeer and a fictional muse to life in a jewel of a novel' Time
‘Chevalier doesn't put a foot wrong in this triumphant work … It is a beautifully written tale that mirrors the elegance of the painting that inspired it’ Wall Street Journal
'It has a slow, magical current of its own that picks you up and carries you stealthily along…a beautiful story, lovingly told by a very talented writer' Daily Mail
'A wonderful novel, mysterious, steeped in atmosphere, deeply revealing about the process of painting…truly magical' Guardian
From the Inside Flap
An international bestseller with over two million copies sold, this is a story of an artist's desire for beauty and the ultimate corruption of innocence.
17th Century Holland. When Griet becomes a maid in the household of Johannes Vermeer in the town of Delft, she thinks she knows her role: housework, laundry and the care of his six children. But as she becomes part of his world and his work, their growing intimacy spreads tension and deception in the ordered household and, as the scandal seeps out, into the town beyond.
Tracy Chevalier's extraordinary historical novel on the corruption of innocence and the price of genius is a contemporary classic perfect for fans of Sarah Dunant and Philippa Gregory.
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There were warnings on the first two pages. "I heard voices...a woman's bright as polished brass, and a man's, low and dark like the wood of the table...I could hear rich carpets in their voices, books and pearls and fur." It goes on (and on) like this "The woman's face was like an oval serving plate, flashing at times, dull at others. Her eyes were two light buttons..."
Okay already, so Chevalier is establishing that Griet has a painterly eye and visual sensitivity, but she writes as if she's laying bricks. (I meant that in the sense of being a bricklayer, but as I wrote the line I saw that there was another connotation, equally apt.) Simile is piled on simile and metaphor on metaphor so clumsily it's like watching an earnest sixth-former trying to apply for the first time some rudimentary techniques recently learned. I see that one or two readers have been captivated by these early pages, and the similes do drop off a little as we hack our way deeper into the jungle (see, she's even got me doing it now) but it seemed to me as if the whole work was assembled by robots from pre-fabricated components. It's as subtle as a flying mallet! (Even my strained similes are better than hers.)
After the first two pages I started to look for some more information about the author, and learned that she graduated from the MA course in creative writing at UEA. Unhappily, that really shows. Perhaps in twenty years or so Chevalier will have developed a style where the techniques are embedded in the muscle of the narrative, rather than being strung one after the other on a flimsy narrative thread like...er, pearls.
By the way, having established that Griet does have this painterly eye in the first two pages you really can write the rest of the book yourself. In fact, it would be more fun to chop the book into paragraphs and rearrange it into an order that pleased you in order to create some element of surprise, time-slicing the narrative and shuffling the pack like Quentin Tarantino or David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas).
Half way through my miserable 54 pages I started to dip into Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error and was delighted to find that even in the first few pages it was a (non-fiction) witty work of great verve that mixes philosophy, revelation and humour with what it is to be a human being. After a few pages of this, forcing myself to go back to Girl With a Pearl Earring was like reading one of Griet's laundry lists. Oh dear.
Griet is a girl forced to become a maid in a house where the painter and his family live. From the first meeting, a knife knocked to the floor by Catharina bodes ill for their relationship, while “He” quickly realises Griet’s perfectionism and perception of colour. As Griet takes up her new role, she organises and establishes her work efficiently and sums up those she works and lives with. The other servant is fiercely loyal and fairly easy to manipulate given her attachment to Maria Thins, matriarch and organiser of finance. The children vary from helpful to secretive and cunning; the actions of one girl imperil Griet’s very employment as well as the destruction of her property. In a way this is an undramatic book, but the simmering tension and Griet’s developing understanding of the painter’s creativity dominate. Griet’s relationship with her own family changes and is fatally interrupted; truly she is alone and dependent on her own resources. Her vulnerability is her greatest comfort and reason for living as she assists the painter to paint. The unwelcome attentions of a patron means that she must be painted in an intensely intimate way; her hair and identity is concealed in the portrait, but she knows that the picture will be her downfall.
This book has much to say on the subject of human creativity and perceptions of family, relationships and development. It is a book relevant to today’s situation of a woman subject to unwanted attentions, and in this book some of the female characters have a seeming authority which becomes subjected to a man when the situation escalates. The sureness with which Chevalier writes means that the reader is drawn inescapably into the world of the paintings, seeing with Griet colour and form in a new, intense way. This book repays a second read if only to pick up the nuances of themes such as religion, attraction and subtle changes in atmosphere. It is easy to read, stylistically beautiful, and most definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys historical novels with real drive and purpose.
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