Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

So, for the past month, I was preparing to move. I was diligently going through my things and getting rid of books, clothes and other materials. I was packing boxes and wondered daily how I managed to keep so much stuff around. It wasn't like I used it... and completely forgot about it when it was put away. 

However, as my adventures to find my wedding dress led me to the Goodwill (I planned my wedding in a month, so there was no stone left unturned when I was finding my dress), I couldn't resist looking at the books when I couldn't find what I was looking for. There were a lot of good books at the Goodwill, and though I resisted getting many others, I couldn't resist Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. I stumbled upon the movie on HBO go, and figured that it would be a perfect fit for a review, and of course, 'which is better?' post. 

I didn't like how the book started. I thought it was cumbersome, the way the author described each entrance of characters with weighty metaphors and colorful prose. It almost read like a role play thread where each role player spent their own post describing the character before writing their action and reactions. I thought the beginning of the novel was very slow and I was disinterested in all the characters...Until I wasn't. 

Somehow, Chevalier snuck up on me and turned the story around, weaving connections between Griet and those she came into contact with. Griet would navigate a world that clearly was not meant for her. She fell in love with her master, Veemer, immediately when they met and as a maid working in their home, is on the brink of finally being able to peer into the art world when everything comes crashing down. 

Griet has no power. She is from a destitute family, charged with supporting her family when her father is blinded by his work. Her poverty and sequential low status, follows her wherever she goes. She is on the bottom of the totem pole as a maid in the painter's house, and possibly even sinks lower when she becomes his assistant. She does double the work without a thought from her master. She is made to navigate the social world that goes on below Veemer's art studio in the attic. When the butcher's son takes an interest in her, her mother, despite years telling her to "be a good girl" and that she is too young to be married, pushes her to court the butcher's son, Pieter. 

The theme of powerful individuals extends to which individuals wield the most influence over Griet's life, which include the wealthy patron, the mistresses of the household and finally, the master. It shines a light on women in poverty and how little they mean to those who seek to possess them. Griet at first, chooses the master, until it gets her in the end. When his painting is finished, he does not see her anymore and those who helped him paint, do not defend her against the mistress, his wife, consumed with jealousy. 

At the end, she chooses Pieter. She runs out of the house and goes to the person that will give her safety. I have no problems with that, except the times in the book where they are kissing and fooling around in an alley way and their conversations makes it seems like she is settling. He seeks to possess her too, not taking into consideration her feelings or wants. It just so happens that he is the only viable way out for Griet, and one where she is almost beholden to no one, except her husband. 

I like to think that maybe her attitude changes when she is betrayed by the entire household, including the man she loves. However, the book reads like she is telling a story, and the story is told with little side notes that are tinged with regret. It's not clear whether she regrets her treatment at the house, or if she regrets not being bolder? I think she navigates the world around her with the acute awareness of what happens to maids when they catch the attention of the master's eye and maybe she runs towards Pieter because she finally accepted her feelings towards him. 

The book was a quick read, and possibly a very good book to to read in high school English. A healthy dose of high school English standards (theme, symbolism, motifs, etc.) along with a lot of potential supplemental texts, including the actual painting the book is based off of. It almost makes me wish that I taught English next year, I would definitely have read it with my 9th graders.

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