Girl with a Pearl Earring was inspired by the famous 17th century Vermeer painting of the same name. The novel takes place in the Dutch town of Delft. According to Tracy Chevalier’s web site, one day as she looked at the poster of the painting that hung in her bedroom, she thought to herself, “I wonder what Vermeer did to her to make her look like that. Now there’s a story worth writing.”
From that thought, Chevalier created the character of Griet, a maid who works in the Vermeer household. Actually, she works in the household of Maria Thins, Vermeer’s mother-in-law and owner of the house. In one sense, not a lot happens in the book: at the beginning Griet starts work for the household, and towards the end Vermeer paints her. Yet Chevalier creates a compelling narrative by focusing on the seemingly small tensions that arise due to jealousy and secrets.
The story is told in first person by Griet. Her voice is spare and lucid. Here is her first description of Vermeer:
The man was watching me, his eyes grey like the sea. He had a long, angular face, and his expression was steady, in contrast to his wife’s, which flickered like a candle. He had no beard or mustache, and I was glad, for it gave him a clean appearance. He wore a black cloak over his shoulders, a white shirt, and a fine lace collar. His hat pressed into hair the red of brick washed by rain.
Griet is wary of being painted because of rumors about the fate of another maid who appeared in one of Vermeer’s paintings. Yet she is also fascinated by the man and his work. Chevalier has managed to infuse high drama into the process of painting Griet and the aftermath, once the painting is finished.
One of the charms of this book is the imagined backstories of famous Vermeer paintings. Visit Tracy Chevalier’s web site to see small images of all the paintings mentioned in the book.