The Girl with the Pearl Earring


Tracy Chevalier




Date Reviewed:

July 29, 2007

was genuinely surprised at how lame this overly-hyped novel turned out to be. Wasn't this a bestseller? Didn't it win awards? I believe that a movie was made - though this slim novel is so short on plot that I assume the movie must have invented some scenes not in the novel just to inject some drama into the dull story, or else it never would have been released to the cinemas, but would have gone straight to DVD.

The girl in the title of the book is Griet, a 16 year old girl who becomes a servant to the great Dutch artist Vermeer, and eventually she is used as the anonymous model for the painting "Girl With Pearl Earrings". Unfortunately, Griet is a bland personality, so Chevalier tries to inject tension and drama into her story by manufacturing silly crises - such as the fact that Vermeer, the master of the house, asks Griet to mix the paints. Oh, the horror if she is discovered mixing paints! Yet, she is doing the paint mixing under the command of Vermeer, absolute master of the household - so what's the big deal? Similarly, the portrait is painted with Griet wearing the pearl earrings of Vermeer's wife, Catharina. Obviously, the portrait is being done by Vermeer, so why is Griet the one who will be in trouble when the finished painting is finally seen?

Chevalier has one of Vermeer's many children, Cornelia, maintain a baseless hatred for Griet, and thus we get the "crisis" of the missing comb. Yawn. Oh no - the Protestant Griet has to sleep in a room with a crucifix- another crisis! Not convincing tension, but I suppose it is a better plot than watching the joyless Griet go to church, visit the meat market and do endless loads of laundry while negotiating the hatreds of Vermeer's wife, the other servant, and the implacable Cornelia.

The bland Griet is not just a repressed individual when she laboring in a Catholic household. Even when she visits her parents, the interactions are boring. Her brother is a much more interesting character, he rebels against his lot in life and eventually runs away, his story would have been better than Griet's. Worst of all are the descriptions of Griet's courtship by Pieter, the butcher boy. Pieter is the most likable character in the novel, but his attentions are deflected by Griet - ugh! He has blood under his fingernails! (At a different point in the novel, Griet complains that at age 18 her hands are ruined from doing so many loads of laundry, so I guess Chevalier has a thing for beautiful hands.) Pieter and Griet meet secretly in alleys, where she treats him coldly while he tries to grope her. Oh no! Pieter might get a glimpse of Griet's hair from under her bonnet! Yawn. Hardly a romantic novel. Pieter tries to marry her, but Griet apparently loves being a maid so much in a household of people who hate her, that she keep putting Pieter off. (This standing marriage offer by Pieter lessens the tension from all the household "crises" - if Vermeer fires her for posing in the picture, she can always go marry Pieter, so what's the big deal? Indeed, that is exactly what happens. Oops, I gave away the dramatic ending!)

The part of the story that totally ruined this book for me is Griet instructing Vermeer on how to be a better painter. At one point, Griet explains to Vermeer how he can improve the still life. Another time, she is fretting with the unfinished painting - every day she can see the flaw in the painting, Vermeer doesn't correct it - finally she gathers her nerve and tells him what is wrong with his painting. Does this sound remotely believable? A master artist instructed and corrected by an untrained serving girl (all her criticisms are dead on, Vermeer never says - "No Griet, that idea would harm the painting for this reason.") How corny.

I can't imagine why this book is a big bestseller. It is boring and unbelievable. If it hadn't been so short, I would never have finished it.