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The Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

By Josie Brown | Books | August 17, 2009 |

By Josie Brown | Books | August 17, 2009 |

When I think of Vermeer, I picture the same photo that I assume most interested-in-but-not-students-of-Dutch-art people picture, the Girl with Pearl Earring. The painting is awash in light even against its black background, and the color and texture are immaculate. It’s a bit strange that this should be one of Vermeer’s better known works, since the rest of his catalog focused on people in rooms, engaged in activity. It may be that Girl with Pearl Earring stands out so much because of its striking composition — it’s just a girl with beautiful eyes against a strong background. However, reading The Girl in Hyacinth Blue with Pearl Earring in mind is quite helpful because so much is made of the girl in the book’s painting’s appeal and engagement with the viewer.

This book is less a contiguous story and more of a series of short stories tied together by the painting of the book’s title. It’s a really good idea, and it’s a wonderful examination of how people relate to pieces of art, but in the end it did fall a little flat for me as a result of the disjointed composition. The various stories hold up to the light the joys of family, the beautiful landscape of Holland, and the way different people see and relate to great art. The problem is that the author seems to be trying for a cohesive story that traces the path of this painting through time, but the execution falls short. She could also have been going for a kind of Faulknerian vibe, but if that’s the case, she’s falling short as well; Faulker’s use of multiple narrators is used to provide a multi-layered view of the same selection of events, with limited asides to fill in background and perspective. Vreeland’s only connective theme is the painting itself and her choice of vantage points leaves the reader wanting more.

The story begins with a professor at a private school showing one of his colleagues what he claims is a Vermeer. Though he does not tell his colleage, this man knows that his father gained possession of the painting during his time as a Nazi officer. This knowledge riddles the man with guilt and it seems that if his colleague can affirm that it is a true Vermeer, then the awful cost of the painting will be justified. The owner is emotionally attached to the painting, but experiences little joy in it. The colleague, however, views it with an art historian’s eye and takes note of its composition, brushstrokes, subject matter and use of light. Already, we see two understandings of the same painting, and Vreeland takes us further into art appreciation as the painting is variously viewed as the glue holding a family together, a simple spot of brightness during a melancholy flood, a healing balm on a frought father/daughter relationship. We have all been touched by art, even if it’s not in a museum, even if it’s recognized as high art, and it’s easy to to understand the various emotions in play.

The opening chapter seems to indicate that the chapters that follow will work towards a validation of the work as a Vermeer piece. It’s a well written chapter and leaves just enough unsaid that you’re curious about the truth that seems to lie ahead. Unfortunately, Vreeland never brings the story back around; I don’t think it even needed to go back specifically to the setting of that opening chapter, but some resolution is really necessary. She takes the painting all the way back to Vermeer as he creates it — a portrait of his daughter - and what she imagines the work means to the artist, but never completes the circle. It’s a contemplative, interesting look at a painting as it is, but coming back to the question in the opening chapter would have made it a deeper and more cohesive tale. In its present form, it does make you think about how you relate to art and how others may, and that in and of itself is plenty of reason to pick this book up.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Josie’s reviews, check out her blog, The Outlaw Josie Brown.

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