Tracy Chevalier’s art fiction bursts with surprises as she uncovers the possible root of a masterpiece branded as the Dutch Mona Lisa. No one is sure who the girl was, as no one is certain about how the real Vermeer worked or lived. In her treasure of a novel, Chevalier presents a story behind the painting that seems to be so real that it must have been true.
Girl with a Pearl Earring is also the basis of the 2003 film under the same title starring Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson and Cillian Murphy. The novel takes off as the seventeen-year-old Griet was introduced to the painter Johannes Vermeer and his wife, Catharina, when the two visited her house. She understands then that she is to be their maid as a consequence their family needs to face when her father, a skilled tile painter lost his vision in an accident. On top of the eccentricities she has to deal with each family member including the other maid, Tanneke, Griet faces bigger challenges as her role shifts from being an all-around servant girl to an artist’s assistant.
Unlike other art fictions, the other captivating thing about this novel aside from the beautifully imagined plot is the narration. In other works that feature the life and work of an artist, the narrator is usually either the artist himself or an omniscient one with above-sufficient knowledge about art and its creation. In Chevalier’s novel, however, the narrator is Griet – an innocent maid ignorant of the world let alone art. But since the novel is expected to develop, Griet’s description moves from describing a palette knife as “a knife with a diamond-shaped blade“ to calling it what it is; from addressing van Leeuwenhoek’s camera obscura as a box with a diabolic magic to confidently calling it a camera obscura.
Chevalier reiterates the importance of knowing one’s place and maintaining one’s self all throughout the novel, which is as necessary and life-saving as knowing etiquette. For while it’s hard to be a maid in a household sinking in debts and serve a family full of inappropriate pride and to assist a reticent, emotionally unstable and selfish artist, it’s easy to get lost in the entire mayhem.
Slayer of Gods by Lynda S. Robinson