Audiobook Review: The Girl with a Pearl Earring

Some people read with the story in mind. Others read with an eye toward language. Still others read to befriend the characters they come to know and love - or know and hate. I read in all of these ways, often depending on the book in my hands, but lately I find myself reading with a mind to inspiration. Where did this story come from? What spark of inspiration set this particular author to writing?

Perhaps it is because I've started to have fantasies of picking up fiction again (or for the first time, depending on your definition) myself, and find that despite a well of words within me, I am lacking that elusive spark, that subject, that object or person or era or passion in which I can submerse myself, lose myself, and meet my story.

In light of this new slant to my reading, it is no wonder that I found myself drawn to Tracy Chevalier's Girl with the Pearl Earring, a novel so clearly rooted in the famous yet inexplicable painting. Who is this girl, who at one glance appears to be smiling, at the next, pouting? Who does not fit in with the subjects of Vermeer's other painting? Who is neither wealthy nor famous? Who does not show her hair, but wears a band of fabric not customary to any of Vermeer's contemporaries? And why, on a girl so obviously of the working class, does she wear a large, glistening pearl in her ear?

Chevalier's novel explores the life of this mystery girl, who, it turns out, is a maid in Vermeer's household, and a maid with an eye for color and paints. As she begins to work more closely with Vermeer, we find her in a situation rife with unspoken tension, fluttering eye contact, and beautiful paintings.

Chevalier masters the world in which Griet and Vermeer live, from the details of their small Dutch town to the exquisite descriptions of Vermeer's tools, paints, and final pieces. Girl with the Pearl Earring is a perfect balance of history and fiction, a novel in which Chevalier's imaginative retelling of this famous painting support, rather than detracts from, the story of the painting itself. It is the kind of masterful novel that succeeds in reshaping our definition of a thing; in this case, Vermeer's painting, but for me, the story behind paintings in general.

I have visited the great museums of the world (or of my little world, anyone), from the Met to the Louvre, and appreciated paintings for their intricate brushstrokes, the careful lines and balance, the vibrant, or not-so-vibrant, colors of the work. But never before have I applied my "Why did the author write this book? Where did the idea come from?" tack to paintings. Though I could not begin to explain why literature and art insist on residing in separate parts of my brain, I can thank Chevalier for helping me bridge the gap between the two, and compliment her on an exquisite work of art, beauty, love, color, and history.


A note on the audio: I listened to the Recorded Books edition of Girl with a Pearl Earring, narrated by Ruth Ann Phimister. Though I have not heard Jenna Lamia's narration, and so have no basis of comparison, I can say that Phimister's treatment of Griet is spot-on. Though never affecting a Dutch accent, a hint of an accent suggests it; though narrating the story of a girl forced to grow up earlier than would be expected, and told from a perspective many years down the line, her voice suggests the persistence of youth; though never venturing into sadness or regret, her narration implies a sense of curiosity over what could have been. Phimister's voice and Griet's story have, in my mind, become inextricable -- when I think back to this novel, I hear her narration in my head.


Thoughts from other bookworms:

The Book Nook Club
Blog Critics


You might also like:

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostovo
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier


Note: Thanks to the Anne Arundel County Public Library for the audio copy of this book, and for generally maintaining an amazing collection of audiobooks for me to peruse.


  1. I loved this post for several reasons. Thank you!!

    I loved your discussion of what we're looking for when we read. Of course I'm familiar with all the different goals you name; but do we always have a goal established when we begin a book? Sometimes I know I want to learn about a nonfiction subject; sometimes I know a writer represents a certain style I'm curious about, so I'm reading for the writing; in murder-mysteries, I'm usually reading for plot... but I think often the book will define what I'm seeking out of it, by what it has to offer.

    I enjoy your interest in inspiration. When I've studied lit, or done literary criticism, I've always found authorial intention to be an interesting angle. Of course you can criticize and dissect a book outside of any consideration of the author's intent, but I always thought it was interesting to try to get inside the head of the writer.

    And... I love this book, too, as well as the painting. Have you seen it? It's in the Mauritshuis in the Hague and I was very lucky to visit it and get to see the original.

  2. AND, I like how you mention that this narrator has defined Griet's voice for you. I know what you mean. I heard my first of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves series on audio, and now that voice defines Bertie & Jeeves for me in all the rest, which is great!

  3. I don't know what happened for me with this book. I was so desperate to read it about 2 years ago, I bought it especially so that I could read it as soon as possible, and what do you know, its still waiting to be read. All reviews I have read give it a glowing review. I do like the idea of going into the artists motivation for the painting too

  4. I read this book a couple of years ago and fell in love with the quiet simplicity and beauty of the words and characters. And any book that makes me research even ore is one I will always remember.

    Wonderful review and I may have to pick up the audio for this one.


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