“Girl With a Pearl Earring ” by Tracy Chevalier

Book Title: Girl With a Pearl Earring

Author: Tracy Chevalier

Little is known about the life of painter Johannes Vermeer. He had over 11 children, painted at home in Delft, lived with his mother-in-law Maria Thins and was in debt to the baker who he paid with paintings.

Using only these scant facts, Chevalier weaves a convincing story centering on the painting entitled Girl With A Pearl Earring. This is the most recent of three novels based on Vermeer’s work, the mystery surrounding the artist proving an ideal canvas for a period novel.

This haunting tale is captivates to the novel’s conclusion, which is deliberately poignant. Chevalier meticulously recreates 17th century Holland. Here are the social intricacies of a small village, the underlying tension between Catholics and Protestants and the drudgery of servant life, into which the main character, Griet is unwillingly thrust.

The daughter of a blinded tile painter, Griet is sent to work as a maid in the Vermeer home. Her appreciation of colour, first revealed by her careful arrangement of vegetables, impresses Vermeer who enlists her as his assistant and eventually paints the famed portrait.

Chevalier’s detailed accounts of Vermeer’s work and artistic process are striking, inspiring one to have a volume on hand which displays Vermeer’s paintings. Similar attention is given to the dynamics of bourgeois domestic life. The jealous and excitable wife, commanding mother-in-law and self-absorbed artist are skilfully portrayed, a testament to the authors understanding of the time period.

Griet is drawn into Vermeer’s world of aquamarine blue, fur mantles and various ‘ladies’ suspended in time. As their relationship develops, so does a scandal and when society begins to encroach her sanctuary (interaction with Vermeer in his studio), Griet suffers the full force of class prejudice.

Chevalier is wonderfully insightful, providing a unique perspective on one of the most enigmatic painters of the 17th century. The mystery of the Girl With A Pearl Earring lingers long after the book is finished.

“The Amateur Marriage” by Anne Tyler

Book Title: The Amateur Marriage

Author: Anne Tyler

One dictionary definition of the word “poignant” is “painfully sharp”. Extend that definition to encompass a sharpness of observation exploring the most intimate aspects of the human condition in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. You will then approach an understanding of what Anne Tyler’s novels achieve.

Michael and Pauline have “The Amateur Marriage”. As with many of her earlier novels, (“The Accidental Tourist”, “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” and “Saint Maybe” to name but three), the major male character of the novel is frail in spirit despite his outward appearances. His character reminds one of the famous Thoreau statement that: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. Like many of us, he exists in a world that he feels is a little too big to get a grip on, where the unpredictable lies next to the mundane and ordinary. As a result, he continually retreats into the known and the secure. His penchant for order frustrates his wife, Pauline who is fond of committing quirky acts in order to secure some variety in her life.

The ten chapters of “The Amateur Marriage” poignantly tell of this marriage, aspects of which, will resonate powerfully with any reader who has ever been in a close relationship. In one chapter in particular, “Killing the Frog by Degrees”, Tyler demonstrates what a truly brilliant writer she is, illustrating in that one chapter how life is often a process of the breakdown of some relationships and the formation of new ones, without shrinking from the sadness of such losses and the uncertainties which often accompany the formation of new bonds.

Tyler’s novels always contain the leitmotif of hope. One goes away from “The Amateur Marriage” feeling that although the author is informing us that the journey through life is usually a bittersweet one, she is also assuring us that the journey is always worth the struggles along the way.

For those readers who have never picked up an Anne Tyler novel, you should do yourself a favour and begin with “The Amateur Marriage”.