GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING is a thoroughly engaging novel that follows the life-changing experiences of quiet Griet over the two years she serves the Delft painter, Johannes Vermeer. It is hard not to like this good and obedient protagonist, for she struggles with universal yearnings such as love and an escape from poverty. Her life is a fairly solitary one as she finds herself growing apart from her family while living as an outsider in another's home.
The Vermeer family, with the exception of the painter himself, is not fond of the strange Protestant girl; and as Maria Thins, the grandmother, says, "Never so much trouble with a maid before." The real trouble comes, however, when the artist takes a liking to the young girl and allows her to assist him in his work.
Griet is granted the privilege that no other family member has --- helping Vermeer in his studio. Not even his wife Catharina is allowed to enter the studio, so this arrangement causes a great deal of tension within the household. Griet begins her work by cleaning the various still life objects that Vermeer will paint later that day. She also is given the responsibility of grinding the paints and even purchasing the colors from the apothecary. As if these "privileges" were not causing enough disquietude within the family, matters only get worse when Vermeer agrees, at a friend's request, to paint Griet.
The moments in which Vermeer paints Griet are the most spellbinding of the book. We feel Griet's nervous emotions as she sits as still as possible under the close eye of the awe-inspiring man she has grown to love. Her inner struggle is augmented by jealous Pieter, the butcher's son, who has made no secret of his intention to marry Griet. The young maid, however, seems devoted only to her master and obeys his every wish. When he tells her to wear his wife's pearl earrings for the painting, Griet agrees even though she knows it could lead to her downfall.
This book is written with the same extreme care that Griet takes when cleaning her master's studio. While Griet is quiet and obedient, the reader can see how full her heart is, as the emotions are conveyed magnificently across the page. The reader also has a very clear image of what Vermeer himself may have been like, and his remarkable character draws the reader in as much as Chevalier's charming history of a most intriguing painting.
Reviewed by Erin Dempsey on September 30, 2003
Girl With a Pearl Earring