So, I have to admit (in case you hadn’t already noticed) that I’m a little bit of a literary snob. I generally do prefer older literature to the newer stuff out there, and I just like for things to be written well. Still, every now and then, one has to go for what I like to call “brain candy”. And sometimes, one can be pleasantly surprised by an easy read and find it to be something worthy of higher praise.
The Girl with the Pearl Earring is a fictionalized narrative about the girl who posed for the famous painting by Johannes Vermeer. In Chevalier’s story, she is our narrator, Griet. Griet’s family has fallen on hard times, and she is hired out to be a maid in the Vermeer household. While there she becomes first an assistant to the painter, and finally a muse. This draws ire from the various women in his family and endangers Griet’s position. There are also the unwelcome advances of Vermeer’s wealthy patron, and the attentions of the butcher’s son to contend with, and Griet grows up quickly and learns a great deal about the differences in class and social structure in her world.
After reading this novel, I guess I wouldn’t exactly call it brain candy, although it’s still a very comfortable and easy read. The language is delightfully clear and descriptive, and the characters are interesting, but very subdued. If I knew anything at all about painting in general and Vermeer in particular, I would imagine that Chevalier was trying to use language in the same way that Vermeer used color and images. While there is certainly drama and tension in the story, Griet’s calm, measured narration serves as a steadying influence, and her practicality balances out her love of the artistic, thus keeping the novel from veering too far toward melodrama.
The flaw of the novel is in the characterization, in that there’s not very much of it. While I understand the effort to keep Griet on an even keel, the brief hints and suggestions at a more “alive” side to her personality are never really fleshed out, and that was disappointing. Ultimately, I guess it fits into the story well; Griet, as part of a lower social strata, cannot afford to lose control and be fully free with her feelings and actions, and that is reflected in her character. I just feel as though the reader is offered these glimpses of a different character, and thus assumes that she will make some kind of appearance, but she never really does. All of the other characters in the novel are fairly one-note, although that can again be attributed to the narrative perspective. I suppose one should really give Chevalier credit. She’s given us a character who, at one time, appears to be both fairly uninteresting and a compelling narrator, and we can certainly see how she would have become an artist’s inspiration and a lasting image of artistry.