I’ve been sitting on this review a while. I had high expectations for Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, but it shares many weaknesses with New Boy. The next Chevalier book on my queue will be one with original characters and an original premise. She’s a strong writer, but Girl with a Pearl Earring is limited by Vermeer’s painting just as New Boy is limited by Othello. I want to see what Chevalier writes when not constrained by the works of others.
The story is simple: It follows Griet’s service to the Vermeer family up through the time she sits for her famous portrait. Griet’s family is poor so the comparatively wealthy Vermeer household is an adjustment. Between domestic squabbles, there’s sexual tension between her and Vermeer. A lot of reviews go on about the “romantic” aspects of this book, but I wasn’t feeling them. Griet lives for Vermeer’s attentions, but she seems more like a teacher’s pet than potential paramour. It’s hard to invest in a will-they-won’t-they conflict when it’s obvious they won’t. And oh, the vicarious embarrassment!
My chief issue with Girl with a Pearl Earring is that Chevalier immediately slots characters into their roles and doesn’t permit growth or development. At first, I liked her quick and effective characterizations because they jump-started the story. It was exciting to wonder what these fully-articulated people were going to do. After a few hundred pages, though, I realized that everyone was fundamentally the same as on page one despite the intervening decade. The distant (yet genius) painter remained a distant (yet genius) painter. The jealous wife remained a jealous wife. The bratty kid became a bratty teen. The sick person became—wait, they died, which passes for character development in this book.
Griet’s chief obstacle is young Cordelia, one of her charges, who is as ill-mannered and deliberately cruel on day one as on the last page. Their first and last meetings have the same climax: Griet slaps Cordelia. This final slap makes good narrative sense, but the first is odd. It was a different time to be sure, but I suspect that slapping a kid you haven’t been officially hired to manage might be a career-killer. Plus, it doesn’t mesh with Griet’s temperament. Because the second slap is so much more deserved, it undermines the first which I suspect was primarily included for the sake of parallel structure.
Back to Griet’s pining for Vermeer and the cringe factor. On one hand it’s relatable—we’ve all had a crush on an authority figure—but Vermeer is so cold and such a minor character. It’s probably realistic that their paths cross infrequently, but theirs is the only interesting relationship in the book and I wanted more of it. Griet’s other relationships are one-dimensional and predictable—Vermeer was the only chance of an unexpected moment. It was less that I wanted them to be together than I wanted something to happen.
The ending builds to the moment when Vermeer paints her which is a known event. Exhibit A: The book cover. Obvious endings don’t always ruin the mood, but when everything else feels flat and predictable it feels like you’re on a plane and the pilot has been circling the airport the last few hours.
Sidenote: Why does Griet spend two day’s worth of her salary on a bit of numbing cream for her ear?? Ear piercings aren’t nearly so bad as she makes them out to be. If I’d read this book as a kid, I’d have far fewer holes in my ears.
Girl with a Pearl Earring is tough book to review because I read it in a single sitting and only realized that I didn’t like after turning the last page. This reaction is uncomfortably close to that of people who say, “Waiter, I want a refund on this disgusting food that I completely finished!” I don’t like those people. And yet, that’s how I feel about this book. I kept thinking it would go somewhere and mean something and I didn’t let the hope slip away until the last page.
Overall: 3.9 (out of 5.0) Girl with a Pearl Earring is readable, but repetitive and irritatingly one-dimensional. Chevalier is a good writer, clearly, so I don’t know why her stories leave me so cold. Where is the subtlety and nuance? Is she afraid of taking too much license with historical figures? If you know a better book by Chevelier, please name it in the comments.