This is a book which, like the painting at the heart of it, stands out as a beautifully written tale of life and attraction in Delft in the mid seventeenth century. It represents a slice of the life of a young woman who history cannot name, but who is given a fictional life by a skilled writer. The research which undoubtedly underlies this story is never heavy handed, but blends beautifully with the fiction to present a picture of a life which is almost claustrophobic, but always within the wider setting of a city divided into areas of religion. The painter, Vermeer, is never actually named in this book; he is seen as master of the house, painter, husband to a difficult wife, and strange presence in the life of the girl whose image lives on in the famous painting.
Griet is a girl forced to become a maid in a house where the painter and his family live. From the first meeting, a knife knocked to the floor by Catharina bodes ill for their relationship, while “He” quickly realises Griet’s perfectionism and perception of colour. As Griet takes up her new role, she organises and establishes her work efficiently and sums up those she works and lives with. The other servant is fiercely loyal and fairly easy to manipulate given her attachment to Maria Thins, matriarch and organiser of finance. The children vary from helpful to secretive and cunning; the actions of one girl imperil Griet’s very employment as well as the destruction of her property. In a way this is an undramatic book, but the simmering tension and Griet’s developing understanding of the painter’s creativity dominate. Griet’s relationship with her own family changes and is fatally interrupted; truly she is alone and dependent on her own resources. Her vulnerability is her greatest comfort and reason for living as she assists the painter to paint. The unwelcome attentions of a patron means that she must be painted in an intensely intimate way; her hair and identity is concealed in the portrait, but she knows that the picture will be her downfall.
This book has much to say on the subject of human creativity and perceptions of family, relationships and development. It is a book relevant to today’s situation of a woman subject to unwanted attentions, and in this book some of the female characters have a seeming authority which becomes subjected to a man when the situation escalates. The sureness with which Chevalier writes means that the reader is drawn inescapably into the world of the paintings, seeing with Griet colour and form in a new, intense way. This book repays a second read if only to pick up the nuances of themes such as religion, attraction and subtle changes in atmosphere. It is easy to read, stylistically beautiful, and most definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys historical novels with real drive and purpose.
Having spent most of the weekend sitting in a church looking after a collection of crib/nativity sets, I thought that I would pop this post on as we recently had a book group discussion which praised this book greatly! At least it is really easy to get hold of in charity shops…