This is one of those books that I’ve been aware of for years, but never really found the impetus to read until recently. I went to see Tracy Chevalier give a talk about the Brontes (she’s one of the main people involved in promoting the Bronte 200 celebrations and curated a collection of short stories based on Jane Eyre). I found her so warm and compelling as a speaker-and lovely afterwards when I got my book signed- that I just HAD to go away and read something she’d written. So where to start but the most famous of her novels?
I don’t know what it is about me and books set in The Netherlands, but I always seem to love them. This is no different. I should really go and visit the country sometime (before Brexit?) and I have no excuse, as my good friend Carolina lives there. Anyway. The protagonist of the story is Griet, the daughter of a tile painter who, after her father is blinded in an accident, accepts the position of housemaid to the painter Vermeer and his family. This is no easy job for her though- Vermeer is cold and distant, his wife a complete nightmare and the couple’s daughters hard work. Griet does find a kind of ally in Maria Thins, the mother of Mrs Vermeer and it is because of this that she maintains her job. However, Griet struggles to connect the world within the household and that without; her family and her sweetheart unable to comprehend the pull of the enigmatic painter and his work. This becomes stronger as he begins to use her in his work, first grinding paints together and later, the ultimate risk, using her as a model for the famous painting.
I found myself completely drawn into the story; the atmosphere that Griet finds herself living in- claustrophobic yet thrilling- perfectly captured. It’s as much a story about a reserved girl becoming aware of her sexuality and sense of self as it is about an enormously famous painting. The book itself is a work of art.