Critical Assessment

“Chevalier’s novel . . . is a wondrous, enthralling piece of work, told through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl who goes to work as a maid in Vermeer’s household after her father is blinded in a kiln explosion.

“Like Vermeer’s paintings, ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ is deceptively simple, its events recounted in a matter-of-fact language that belies the novel’s immense ambition and sophistication. Its narration, after all, enacts a hoch feminist maneuver: relating a monumental event (in this case, the genesis of one of Vermeer’s most unsettling masterpieces) from the perspective of a ‘marginal’ participant (a woman, of course – here, Vermeer’s poor, reluctant model), thereby rewriting history from the point of view of the voiceless and oppressed.

“But whatever its agenda, Chevalier’s novel sings with the freshness and the thoroughly intoxicating sense of a specific time, place and personality that I have encountered in only one other recent novel.”

Marion Lignana Rosenberg, “‘Girl with a Pearl Earring,’ by Tracy Chevalier, ‘The Music Lesson’ by Katharine Weber and ‘Girl in Hyacinth Blue’ by Susan Vreeland,” Salon, January 10, 2000.

First Excerpt

“Though it was a big room, it held little furniture. There was the easel and chair set in front of the middle window, and the table placed in front of the window in the right corner. Besides the chair I had stood on there was another by the table, of plain leather nailed on with brass studs and two lion heads carved into the tops of the posts. Against the far wall, behind the chair and easel, was a small cupboard, its drawers closed, several brushes and a knife with a diamond-shaped blade arranged on top next to clean palettes. Beside the cupboard was a desk on which were papers and books and prints. Two more lion-head chairs had been set against the wall near the doorway.

“It was an orderly room, empty of the clutter of everyday life. It felt different from the rest of the house, almost as if it were in another house altogether. When the door was closed it would be difficult to hear the shouts of the children, the jangle of Catharina’s keys, the sweeping of our brooms.

“I took up my broom, bucket of water, and dust cloth and began to clean.”

76847Second Excerpt

“He opened the middle window, filling the room with cold air.

“‘Come here, Griet.’

“I set my rag on the sill and went to him.

“‘Look out the window.’

“I looked out. It was a breezy day, with clouds disappearing behind the New Church tower.

“‘What color are those clouds?’

“‘Why, white, sir.’

“He raised his eyebrows slightly. ‘Are they?’

“I glanced at them. ‘And grey. Perhaps it will snow.’

“‘Come, Griet, you can do better than that. Think of your vegetables.’

“‘My vegetables, sir?’

“He moved his head slightly. I was annoying him again. My jaw tightened.

“‘Think of how you separated the whites. Your turnips and your onions – are they the same white?’

“Suddenly I understood. ‘No. The turnip has green in it, the onion yellow.’

“‘Exactly. Now, what colors do you see in the clouds?’

“‘There is some blue in them,’ I said after studying them for a few minutes. ‘And – yellow as well. And there is some green!’ I became so excited I actually pointed. I had been looking at clouds all my life, but I felt as if I saw them for the first time at that moment.”