26 February 2008

Book Review: Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

What’s in a Name? Challenge #1

The Girl in Hyacinth Blue In a teacher’s house hangs his greatest secret: A painting of a girl dressed in hyacinth blue, caught in an idle moment by a window. He is trapped between the urge to share the beauty of (maybe) a lost Vermeer, and to atone for the ugliness of its acquisition. From there the tale works its way back through time, visiting some of those who have loved and lived with the painting, and whose lives have shifted course beneath the girl’s abstracted gaze. A Jewish family keeping Passover in 1942; a couple about to say goodbye to their only daughter; a French diplomat’s wife longing for Paris; a woman in the middle of a flood who finds the painting and a baby and longs to keep both; and her secret benefactor. At last it reaches the artist himself, and the chance moment that inspired its creation.

Read. This. Book.

Okay, I’ll be more specific. I ploughed through this in a couple of days, eagerly turning the pages because I was impatient to read more. Then once I’d finished I wished I’d read it more slowly so that it wouldn’t have been over so soon. I still can’t quite decide whether it’s really a novel or a linked sequence of short stories; in that respect it reminds me of The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing; dreadfully unfortunate given that that merited a D- (I think) while this is a case of literary true love. The writing is beautiful, the scenes of Dutch life delicate and clear on the page, and the descriptions of the painting will have any art lover salivating. You can just see the brushstrokes creating the texture of the basket, and the way the colour shifts with the light. If you’re so lucky as to have a Vermeer somewhere nearby it would be enough to make you want to rush out and visit it.

It’s impossible not to draw comparisons with Girl with a Pearl Earring; it was interesting to note that here once the family moved in with Maria Thins, Vermeer hardly painted at all due to the poor light - yet that is the house where the other novel was set. Both are good, but this is the better of the two; only this left me with the feeling of holding something precious. I have to say, however, that some of the Dutch names give one a certain pause for thought - of the ‘145How on earth do you pronounce that?’ variety. As I’m sure there must be a reasonable number of manageable Dutch names available for use, that is the only thing that keeps it from perfection.

Rating: A


Marg said...

I love the way you track back through the various owners of the painting and how it changed hands.

joanna said...

Hmmm this looks really good! Like I really need another book I want to read though...

I was really disappointed by The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing - and you're the first other person I see didn't like it. It got some really good reviews at the time it came out I think!

Lauren said...

I, sadly, couldn't get through this one. I found it moved too slow for me.

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776