Girl with the Pearl Earring: An imaginative tale

Sometimes great reads turn up in the second hand book store close to Molly Quell’s home in Delft. Girl with the Pearl Earring is one of them.

We don’t know the identity of the girl who gazes out of the famous 17th-century painting by Johannes Vermeer but author Tracy Chevalier imagines who the young woman might be in her 1999 novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring.

In Chevalier’s Delft, the Vermeer household hires 16-year-old Griet to work as a maid. She’s the daughter of a recently disabled tile maker, giving the teenager familiarity with painting and art. That knowledge becomes integral as Griet becomes more and more enmeshed with her now-renowned boss. 

Chevalier does a wonderful job of creating mounting tension as the novel progresses. The pressure on Griet ticks up to support her family now that her father is unable to work and their precarious financial position plays an increasingly important role in her marriage prospects. The teenager’s relationship with the older Vermeer creates problems in the household and the reader is left wondering why she’s so keen to help him, at such great personal cost to herself. 

Although it is a work of historical fiction, a genre that can sometimes be impenetrable to an audience with little knowledge of the norms and customs of the time, Chevalier creates a highly readable work. Girl with a Pearl Earring is practically a page-turner and the reader is left wanting to know how each thread of the plot concludes. 

We know next to nothing about who the actual model for the oil painting was. Some historians say it is Vermeer’s oldest daughter Maria but there is little evidence to support that claim. This is not unusual, we don’t know who the women (and men) are in many famous works of art. Even the model for the Mona Lisa is debated. 

Some historians took issue with the book, accusing Chevalier of muddying the waters. Art historical Gary Schwarz criticised the depiction of the religious strife between Catholics and Protestants, arguing the book oversimplified the conflict. 

The blanks in Vermeer’s story have left plenty of room for authors to speculate about who he was and who are the faces in his art we are all now familiar with. The 1999 novel Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland creates a new Vermeer artwork while Katharine Weber’s The Music Lesson, published in 2011, depicts the life of the woman in the artwork of the same name. 

Chevalier’s book is a blockbuster, made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson, adapted into a play and the basis for a BBC Radio 4 broadcast. It was a New York Times Best Seller and has been translated into 20 languages. It earned several accolades, including making the long list of the 2000 Women’s Prize for Fiction. 

It may not be strictly true to the letter, as with most historical fiction, but Girl with a Pearl Earring is a pleasurable read that will keep your attention until the final pages. Buy your copy at the American Book Center.

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