When Griet's father has a crippling accident that prevents him from working, her parents hire her out as a maid to the famous Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. From her position as maid she sees, and contributes to, the domestic tensions of the household as she tries to skirt the fragile temper of Vermeer's wife, who becomes more jealous as Griet is given more tasks in her husband's painting studio. Griet becomes closer to the striking painter as time goes by. She goes from just cleaning the studio to assisting him in preparing his paints, and eventually sits to be painted, becoming the subject of one of his most famous paintings, The Girl With the Pearl Earring.
Wow, that synopsis sounds pretty good, doesn't it? It almost makes you want to go down to the library and pick it up. Well, don't waste your time. Girl With a Pearl Earring was disappointing in every category. Though it was a light and easy read that I finished in about a day, I still felt like I wasted my time reading this book.
First of all, let's start with the main character, Griet. I'm not even sure if I should call her a main character really, because she has almost no personality except for a few trite and overdone traits that are supposed to make her seem strong or moral, but just make her come off as a stuck up brat. She makes a big deal of not letting anybody see her hair, saying that she's not the kind of girl who "lets her hair down," meaning that she isn't a prostitute. She then goes on to mention that the style of the time was to have the hair only partially covered or put up in a bun. So does she really need to make such a big deal (and she does make a really big deal) out of keeping her hair tucked away so safely? No, she doesn't, and by doing so she shows herself to be a pretentious goody two-shoes who thinks that she's more pure or whatever than everybody else. If this is the author trying to give Griet a will of her own, it's a very poor way of doing it. Here's a hint for you: making a character more modest than everybody else does not make them better than everybody else. Modesty is not the same as being a good person, and as far as I'm concerned that attitude in society can die right now. Her hair and her strange obsession with her employer (who never gets a personality besides liking peace and quiet and having gray eyes), are her only defining characteristics, and that makes it really hard to empathize with her in any way. The overly dry and observational writing style doesn't help much either. Now go and apply that to every single character, good guy and bad guy alike, and you'll begin to see why I consider this book so over-rated.
So the characters aren't very good. Maybe it's a plot-driven book? Sadly, no. If there is a plot in this book, it would probably be the build up to Griet being painted. Or maybe it's the relationship between Vermeer and Griet. Or maybe it's the relationship between Griet and the butcher's son. Well, the answer is that it's all of those and none of them at the same time. Chevalier has enough material for there to be a really deep and interesting plot, but she never fully develops any of them, so it just ends up being a meaningless, directionless story told from the perspective of a disinterested narrator. Even the point that should be the climax of the story, when Vermeer finally paints Griet, seems somehow lifeless and meaningless.
Ok, so it's not plot driven or character driven, but maybe it has a great setting? It is historical fiction after all. The answer is yet again no. The setting should, in my opinion, be the highlight of historical fiction, and yet I had to go back and look at a summary of the book to tell you where and in what time it took place (seventeenth century Netherlands). That is never a good sign. Griet describes her surroundings a couple of times, mostly a bridge over a canal and a big church, but other than that this could have been set in almost any time or place. While the characters make a big deal out of women not having children out of wedlock and of maids being respectful to their employers, I feel like those are things that are true of most times, and don't really serve to give a good sense of place. In fact, for a book about a painter, most of the descriptions were very bland. She spends time grinding colors for Vermeer, but while she says that they are beautiful, I was never once captivated by a single description of either a color or a painting.
Now, while the plot, characters, and descriptions may have been bad, there have been many books that were saved by a good message and a good ending. Sadly, this book is not one of them. I'm not really even sure what the point of the book was supposed to be. The ending was very rushed, and though I could tell that the author was trying to be profound, the whole thing just came off as trite and meaningless. I love cheesy books as much as anyone, but this one wasn't even cheesy. It was just awkward, because I could tell that the author wanted to be meaningful, but just couldn't figure out how to do it.
I love art, and realism like Vermeer's is one of my favorite styles of painting. This novel had so much potential to be decadently descriptive and rivetingly beautiful, but none of that potential was ever realized. This book was simply one big disappointment. I was planning to read another of Chevalier's books, Remarkable Creatures, but after reading this I don't know if I really want to read anything else by this author. What a shame.
Rating: 1 Star
Would Not Recommend.