Sunday, May 31, 2009

Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

I recall a lot of hype around the film version of "Girl With A Pearl Earring," which came out in December, 2003. I never watched the movie because I didn't think that Scarlett Johansson would be very believable as a Dutch maid. I still don't think I would find her convincing as a Dutch maid, and I know that I won't watch the movie unless someone brings it over and makes me.

Because I didn't know the movie was based on the book (silly me, I thought it was just based on the painting), when I started seeing the thing in bookstores everywhere, I was turned off by the re-vamped covers, with Scarlett's face staring out at me, absolutely nothing going on behind her eyes.

I guess I judged yet another book by its cover, as I am wont to do, and I never even had an ounce of interest in reading this one. Scarlett Johansson, while gorgeous, doesn't really evoke the spirit of a quiet little Dutch girl in the 1600's. (She got more of a club queen in the 1980's thing going, but that's neither here nor there.)

Picking up "Girl With A Pearl Earring" was a complete accident. My sister had bought it, read it, and left it on my bed. She mercifully bought the version with the real painting on the cover, so Scarlett didn't give me her doleful gaze- Vermeer's work gave me that thoughtful gaze instead.

I was sleepy but not able to fall asleep one night (as on most nights) so I picked up the book and started reading. If it makes any sense, I have three types of reading:

1. Full concentration, with the intent of memorizing what I'm reading.

2. Skimming, generally for work, to get the main gist of the generally badly written blabber I'm reading. (It's called spell check and it's already on your computer, people, so USE IT.)

3. Idly, for entertainment. Magazines, paperbacks, the packaging of cosmetic products, that kind of thing.

I picked up "Girl" and started reading idly. I didn't concentrate on it, I just thought it would bore me enough for sleep to come my way.

Completely the opposite- I was hooked.

Tracy Chevalier writes in a manner that I would call "demure" if "demure" didn't seem so prissy. Her writing in quiet, not overly introspective, yet somehow very descriptive. More than once, I re-read a passage and felt a stab of envy. How can such simple words be so evocative?

Griet is a deceptively simple and calm Dutch maid that comes to work for Vermeer and his houseful of complex women and children. Her feelings are never explicitly stated, but I thought they were quite apparent. She doesn't emote, she doesn't chatter, but it's almost like the author intended for the reader to be just on the cusp of Griet's id- I felt Griet's emotion, I knew what she would say if propriety would have allowed.

The story doesn't have a neat path. It doesn't have plotpoints that it tries to hit. It doesn't follow a strict story arc. I liked that aspect, as it felt real and free, rather than contrived. (I also felt that what works so well in this book would not at all work in a movie, furthering my conviction that I won't be watching this film anytime soon.)

I've already read the book twice (some portions more than twice) in the past week, and I know that I'll be reading it again. I love it. Tracy Chevalier's economical, lissome words were exactly what I needed to renew my faith in contemporary authors.

I cannot wait to read her other books, and I cannot wait to re-read "Girl" yet again.


william June 1, 2009 at 1:29 AM  

haven't read the book. have seen the movie. the movie is good, if not great. it's definitely on the small scale, and scarlett johansson doesn't suck. but i thought the smallness of the movie worked. i recommend.

jeanny June 1, 2009 at 8:33 PM  

That's a relief that the movie is small and also good- the book has a 'small' feeling, and wouldn't feel right if it was a big-scale film (i.e. "The Other Boleyn Girl").

Maybe I'll watch it in July, once I've caught up on sleep. Thanks for the recommend, I like knowing what I'm getting into!