Monday, June 17, 2013

Girl With a Pearl Earring (Tracy Chevalier)

Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier
Read: 13 December to 16 December 2011
2 / 5 stars

So the parts when Vermeer was actually being a painter were pretty interesting. Seeing as I slogged through this on account of a recommendation that arose from an art-class lecture on Vermeer, I was hoping that the art stuff would at least deliver.

But it's not a good sign when a book's most compelling moments revolve around two people grinding pigments. And, no: "Grinding pigments" is not a clever euphemism for artist-bangin'. It is, quite literally, referring to the detailed descriptions of how paint was made in the days before those fancy metal tubes replaced pig bladders as the paint-storing vessels of choice.

This was the most predictable book I've read in a while, and that includes the two graphic-novel series that are simply retelling stories I know well in a new medium. I knew exactly where the plot was going within the book's first dozen pages. Every subsequent thread was introduced with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the writerly finesse of a 14-year-old's first attempt at fanfiction.

It was also pretty obvious what stereotype everyone was going to play from his or her very first appearance. There really isn't a multi-dimensional character in this book. I understand that the first-person voice is a limited perspective by its nature, and I would write it off as just that if the peripheral characters were the only flat archetypes, but even the narrator doesn't carry any convincing weight. Griet is the protagonist because she's the main character. And because all of the characters with whom she has scuffles are inexplicably bitchy. Not giving characters any real motivations, not making them behave and interact believably, and generally preferring to tell rather than show all contributed to making this whole book feel sloppy, underdeveloped and rushed. If Girl with a Pearl Earring was maybe 200 more pages of really hammering out the story and its players, maybe then it'd be a more satisfying read. At least it's mercifully quick and mostly painless at its current length.

I say "mostly painless" because there are some groan-worthy lines showcased here: While more pages would have maybe benefited the plot, there is nothing -- save for a control-freak editor -- that could have improved the prose itself. I could not get past the clunky writing. It didn't take me long to get violently annoyed by the author's fondness for hitting the reader over the head with the most obvious attempts at subtle foreshadowing by way of forcing too much weight on these flimsy, laughably ominous one-sentence paragraphs. There were numerous other technical things that kept grating on me about the writing and its myriad shortcomings. Among them: Griet saying things like "I always regretted that decision" to indicate that she's looking back on a time that is very clearly written as the present; not one character shows any development throughout the novel; sixteen-year-old Griet, the daughter of a tile painter, somehow knows more about painting and composition than Vermeer, a professional artist who actually managed to garner some fame during his living years.

Even when the book pissed me off (which was often), I will admit that I never found Griet herself to be irritating (maybe because I kept fantasizing about Scarlett Johansson to save my brain from oozing through my ears?) -- but I was irked at how it felt like Chevalier was Mary Sue-ing her way through the character. The way that every man whom Griet encountered in the whole! damn! book! fawned over and flirted with her, the way she was presented as being uneducated but naturally clever just because she sometimes spoke her mind and separated her chopped veggies by color, the way Griet's family was painted as these simple, sheltered little Protestants who knew nothing of the world around them.... there was far too much black-or-white for me to take anything about the book seriously.

I don't care enough to write about this book any more. So. Every other gripe I have notwithstanding, here are three of the book's most glaring failures:

-- Vermeer, for being the central male character, remains an enigma. It's not that he's shrouded in an air of charming mystery but rather that his personality is nothing more than a bunch of suppositions that Griet "just knows" about him.

-- Griet does not ever refer to Vermeer as anything other than "he" or "him". Not. Once. It made her sound like a starstruck teenybopper and it undermined any sense of genuine affection between the painter and his maid.

-- The similes. Oh, dear sweet Baby Jesus, the similes. I now know that I have a limited tolerance for the number of trite comparisons of faces and voices to household objects that I encounter in one novel, all thanks to the time I spent reading this book.


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