My copy: trade paperback
Purchased February 13, 2007
Read: May 11, 2010
Unsoliticited Preamble: I’m having a fit of rebellion. Against myself. Against my self-imposed responsibilities of reading 70 books this year, reading authors A to Z, and blogging about them. When I was in school, I always rebelled against things I HAD to do – memorizing the multiplication table, memorizing chemistry lists, reading required reading. And it feels that way now; though I love reading, the HAVE to read and blog about it aspect irks me. Even if I’m the one who imposed these silly little requirements upon myself. And that’s my excuse for not blogging for this long.
I have been reading; not fast enough to hit my quotas though. For May’s FFP themed book discussion on Art in Fiction, I read 3 books (reviewed here in 3 posts) and scanned another (Phaidon's the Art Book). Yeay, me!
I started with Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, a book that sets high expectations because it is a best seller, a popular recommendation in online discussions, a book turned power-casted movie. The back blurb screams, "the bestselling novel hailed by critics from coast to coast." It has a beautiful cover; how can it not with the Vermeer painting featuring prominently?
Tracy Chevalier is a competent writer. And the premise is enticing. It gives a fictional story of what that painting, that girl, that earring is all about. It’s something my soul immediately latched on to. Because in museums, I love peering at paintings and wondering about the story behind the artwork. Wondering about the times when that painting was done. Trying to see life through the painter’s eyes. And Chevalier’s work successfully does that. It cast a spell on me, and in my mind’s eye, I saw a camera obscura view of daily life in Delft in the 17th century. A visual extravaganza worthy of Oscar awards in costume design and cinematography. My heart cooperated with the vision, and I suspended judgment and cloaked myself in the magic, imagining Vermeer in that milieu, breathing in the smell of pigments, sucked into the enigma of the girl with a pearl earring.
Wrapped up in the book, I could almost see the brushstrokes painting the scenes described in the story. If only I didn’t have to come up for air to do real life tasks, if only I didn’t have to think, maybe the spell wouldn’t have to break.
Chevalier does historical fiction well, taking the very little known facts known about Vermeer and his family, producing a convincing story that gives a taste of the times. She gives enough meat to the characters to understand their motivations and for readers to engage with the story. Some parts were truly spellbinding.
My favorite parts were the ones about painting itself. Chevalier gives a glimpse of the fascinating tedium (oxymoron intended) of producing art way back when instead of art supply stores, there were apothecaries selling raw materials that needed to be painstakingly ground before they could be used for painting. I loved reading about Vermeer’s frustratingly slow, meticulous process of painting, building up layer upon layer, adding and erasing details, perfecting it until many months later it’s finally done and worthy of all the centuries of praise he never even heard. Those were magical segments.
But eventually, the magic wore thin. Chevalier takes too long, drawing out a story that isn’t really that much of a story. The conflict is just not compelling enough. The girl seems to be making too much of not much, really. Teenage angst, perhaps. The sexual tension between painter and subject so tautly built up does not explode into a satisfying denouement, but instead unravels listlessly into a disappointing compromise.
And so, this book was not enough to satisfy my Art in Fiction lust. So I moved on to this.