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Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland (audio)

This was a lovely little audiobook. The writing beautifully, lyrically evokes the setting. At the start of the book, I recognized the tone and I’m sure there’s a literary term for it, although it escapes me; it actually reminded me of The Picture of Dorian Gray (which, however, I didn’t like). There was that same tone of desperate passion for a work of art; there was a similar element of a painting dominating a man. It was emotional, emotive. But it seemed to calm down as the book progressed, getting more contemplative, quieter, more introspective. And that was really nice, too.

The book is about a painting of a girl in a blue smock, taking a moment’s break from sewing buttons onto a shirt to look out a window. It is variously named by different characters in the story; the title is one name for it. The book opens in a present-day setting: a teacher invites a colleague back to his house to show him a painting he’s kept secret until now. He claims it is a long-lost Vermeer. (Vermeer is the real-life Dutch master who painted The Girl with a Pearl Earring.) From there, we trace the painting’s history backwards through time, through its various owners and caretakers, back to its painter and the moment of inspiration, visiting the girl who sat for it.

An obvious comparison to this book presented itself immediately: Tracy Chevalier’s very successful Girl With a Pearl Earring, which was made into a movie starring Scarlett Johansson. I thought both the book and the movie were lovely, and for others who enjoyed either, I highly recommend Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Not only is the subject matter very like (a fictionalized explanation of the history and inspiration of a Vermeer – or a questionable Vermeer), I found the tone to be reminiscent, as well. It’s interesting to think of these two as companion pieces. It’s been a few years since I read Pearl Earring (maybe that was 2004 or thereabouts?), so maybe my memory is warped, but they struck me as very alike. And for the record, it looks like both were originally published in 1999, so I don’t think anyone copy-catted anyone else!

The portraits of life painted (no pun intended – really she’s an artist) by Vreeland are remarkable. They’re very clear and realistic and whimsical, lovely vignettes into a nice selection of times and places. We meet Dutch, German, and American characters spanning several centuries, and each is neatly portrayed and very enjoyable even as brief snippets – meaning, each might stand alone nicely even without being part of a larger story. In fact, they stand alone so well that in the audio format, with a different reader for each, I kept thinking the book had ended! A person might even say each brief portrayal of a person or family’s life resembles a Vermeer painting, particularly when we get to the middle-class Dutch folks of his own period.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue is an effortless read with beautiful characterizations and scenes of life from a number of times and places, presenting the engaging puzzle of a beautiful painting and its questionable provenance. I highly recommend it.

4 Responses

  1. I’m just trying to get my head anorud how tricky this would be if you’re used to more conventional painting he’s removing the pigment to create the picture instead of layering it on. And there’s a really nice symmetry in creating landscapes from dust picked up from driving through a landscape.

  2. […] Elliot’s Temple Grove (review to come!), helped along by my admiration for Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue and especially her Clara and Mr. Tiffany. In other words, I have high expectations; and the opening […]

  3. […] from my local library. This was one of those – aided by my enjoyment of Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Clara and Mr. […]

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