I’m going to start this review by talking about a different book, as you do. So, Girl with a Pearl Earring. Adored it. Even the film had Colin Firth in, so it goes without saying that I loved that too. However, Girl in Hyacinth Blue is very, very similar and just as good. As easy as it would be to mutter about Susan Vreeland’s plagiarism, it’s simply not true. Both books were released in the same year, 1999, and so should definitely be judged as separate entities. I’m only mentioning it because of the sheer amount of accusatory reviews I’ve read about this one. So back off! 🙂
Plot summary – A professor invites a colleague from the art department to his home to view a painting he has kept secret for decades, in Susan Vreeland’s powerful historical novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue. The professor swears it’s a Vermeer — but why exactly has he kept it hidden so long? The reasons unfold in a gripping sequence of stories that trace ownership of the work back to Amsterdam during World War II and still further to the moment of the painting’s inception.
Ironically enough, the first pages of this novel discuss the imitations of paintings, and this does feel like an copy of Girl with a Pearl Earring. I know we’ve already established that it’s not, but I have to mention that it really did feel the same. Both revolve around a painting by Johannes Vermeer, although the one in question in this story is actually fictional. The tones are eerily similar – if someone told me tomorrow that both Tracy Chevalier and Susan Vreeland went to the same writing class, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. However, the composition is completely different – while the former wrote a straight-forward work of historical fiction, Ms Vreeland almost tells her story backwards.
It starts with an Art teacher being invited to view a painting that hangs in the private collection of a Maths teacher colleague. Upon arrival, he finds a painting that looks exactly like those of Johannes Vermeer and is stunned when the owner tells him that, in fact, it is. However, the novella really begins when he is asked how he came to own this painting, as it’s a very complicated and twisty turn of events.
Each chapter is almost like a short story, dealing with a different family and different owners. Starting at the end, with the Maths teacher, the reader learns how the painting changed hands so many times, right up to the end where we learn of its composition and subject. It’s a clever idea and it works very well – I found myself making little noises of appreciation as I learnt how the owners in the previous chapter came across the painting.
What I loved about this book the most, was how every single owner felt a different way about the painting. I’m not sure if you can see from the book cover above, but it’s basically a girl in a blue dress looking out a window with an unfinished piece of sewing work on her lap. What’s clever is how her expression can be, and is, interpreted many different ways. One owner loves the painting because she thinks the subject likes to be quiet and thoughtful, like herself. She relates to it and wishes her family would accept her as she is. Another owner, conversely, decides the girl is waiting for a kiss and bought it because it reminded him of a past love. I guess I never really thought about how one girl in one painting can be desperate, vacant, thoughtful, depressed, or anything else depending on who happens to view it.
The one thing that bothered me is that the whole book is back-to-front, which is fine, but it’s not consistent. It continues in this way right until the last two chapters, which feature Vermeer deciding to paint it, and then the events after his death. In that order. It suddenly started going forward again and it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I really liked the whole ‘backwards’ idea, but why change it at the end?
Anyway. I was hooked on Girl in Hyacinth Blue from the third page, as the two men gaze upon the painting. I’ve never really understood art or studied it beyond a few brief lessons in school, but this book really brings the passion of those who do to life. I almost felt myself falling in love with this fictional painting myself.
This is a beautiful book with wonderful imagery and a small insight into Dutch history and culture. I honestly think this would make an excellent film itself and I really can’t recommended it enough. I’m not usually a short story fan, but there was enough consistency and linkage to keep me hooked. I read this in a day and I’m now looking for anything else written by Susan Vreeland.