I've been a fan of Tracy Chevalier ever since reading Remarkable Creatures in 2010 (my review), but I hadn't yet read her most famous book, Girl With A Pearl Earring. Set in Delft, the Netherlands, in the 1600s, it's the story of Griet, a tile painter's daughter who must become a maid for the artist Vermeer when her father becomes blind and loses his livelihood. Gifted with a natural appreciation for and understanding of art, Griet lives for the moments in her day when she can help Vermeer with his work by grinding colours or assisting with composition. But both her work and her feelings start to blur the line between servant and master and Griet must soon make some hard choices.
There is lots to like about Girl With A Pearl Earring. One of the reasons I enjoy reading historical fiction is that I get to be transported to different times and places and Chevalier pulled off this aspect of the story well. I knew nothing about the Netherlands in the seventeenth century before reading this book but the atmosphere of the meat market and Papists corner and the canals jumped off the page and pulled me in. The religious element of the distrust between Protestants and Catholics was sensitively handled and engrossing.
The story was good too. I am not a big fan of art, but I found the descriptions of how to make different colours fascinating and the explanation of how Vermeer slowly layered his paintings to create the final effect was interesting. I also appreciated that the romance was subtly done in a showing but not telling kind of way.
But despite all of that I did have a problem with this book and that problem was Griet herself - I just couldn't connect with her as a narrator. She was very distant and matter of fact in her explanations of her thoughts and feelings, which robbed the book of any emotional impact or immediacy. Even when Grief was talking of bereavement I felt as though Chevalier failed to show us how she was really feeling in a way that would make the reader sympathetic to her situation. And because I didn't feel this connection with the main character, I wasn't so caught up in the story and didn't feel strongly what happened to Griet at the end. I connected with other characters, especially Vermeer's wife Catharina, but not Griet herself.
Verdict: Interesting piece of historical fiction set in 17th century Netherlands, unfortunately with a distant main character.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1999
Score: 3.5 out of 5