16-year old Griet is a Dutch girl who comes to serve as a maid in the house of the painter Johannes Vermeer. Her keen perception and artistic sensibilities allows her access into Vermeer’s inner sanctum: his painting studio, where she eventually becomes the master’s assistant.
On top of her work inside the studio, Griet must contend with household duties and serve Vermeer’s temperamental wife Catharina, his shrewd mother-in-law Maria Thins, the maid Tanneke, as well as Vermeer’s growing brood of children.
Griet is on the brink of becoming a woman, and has to deal with growing attentions of the local butcher’s son and Vermeer’s patron van Ruijven. And as Griet becomes more intimate with the master Vermeer, disruption and jealousy erupt within the household, and ripple in the world beyond.
I was fascinated by the novel because aside from the typical coming-of-age elements (discovery of sensuality, angst, etc), it deals with artistic awakening. Griet was innately artistic, with her predilection for arranging vegetables by color. She had an eye for art, as Vermeer noticed himself. Thus she was promoted from mere studio-cleaner to artistic assistant and eventually to Vermeer’s sitting model. And she learns to see how Vermeer sees, and understands how a real artist doesn’t paint something according to how the rest of the world sees it…
Because Griet has a real eye for detail, the imagery is so rich that you can picture so much in your mind: Griet’s favorite tile, the blood caked between the butcher’s fingers, the scalloped edges of a tortoiseshell comb, Vermeer’s gray eyes, the meat market on a busy day… It’s terrific how a book can transport you to a different world, and make you see it in Griet’s eyes.
She develops an attraction to Vermeer, and I love the way she doesn’t come right out and say it, but you can read through her thoughts and feel it. There’s a part in the novel where he’s teaching her to mix paint, and you can practically reach out and touch the electricity crackling in her…
Sigh, what else can I say? Art is the best romance.
There’s a movie version, starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth, and it’s every bit as good as the book. Excellent cinematography!
My copy: originally an old creased trade paperback bought at Book Sale, replaced with a second trade paperback in better condition, then upgraded to a hardcover copy (with dustjacket), mooched from the US
My rating: 5/5 stars