Susan Vreeland is the New York Times bestselling author of eight books, including Clara and Mr. Tiffany and Girl in Hyacinth Blue. She died in 2017.
"Pearls were a favorite item of Vermeer," observes Cornelius Engelbrecht, the secretive and obsessive professor whose conviction that he owns an authentic Vermeer launches Vreeland's lovely first novel. The painting, we soon discover, was taken from its proper (Jewish) owner by Engelbrecht's father, a German soldier during World War IIÄa fact that Engelbrecht struggles mightily to suppress. The one colleague to whom he shows the painting guesses the truth and derisively recommends that he burn itÄ"one good burning deserves another"Äbut we don't learn the fate of the painting. Instead, Vreeland constructs a series of vignettes, not necessarily chronological, that takes us from the rooftops of Amsterdam Jews forced to kill the pigeons they are no longer allowed to keep, to a Dutch merchant whose possession of the painting briefly complicates his marriage, to the boudoir of a French counsel's bored wife and the second story of a farmhouse in flooded Holland, and finally to the home of Vermeer himself, where art does battle with domestic necessity. Though the connections among the vignettes could be made clearer, and the ending feels abruptÄhow did that painting get from the artist to the weary professor, and what finally happens to it?Äeach vignette has the stillness, the polish, and the balanced perfection of a Vermeer. Not quite perfect, but definitely a pearl. Griet, the "girl with the pearl earring," may be a pearl herselfÄfair, soberminded, and gentleÄbut the novel in which we find her is not quite so polished. Chevalier (The Virgin Blue) writes a little plainly of her heroine, forced when her father is blinded in an accident to work as a maid in the home of Vermeer. Eventually, Vermeer asks her to pose for a paintingÄwearing his wife's earringsÄwhich causes a scandal and Griet's determined departure from the household. The artist's coaxing of the reluctant sitter is delicately rendered, but otherwise this text fails to ignite.ÄBarbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
"The stories depict ordinary details from distinct eras with the light touch and clarity of a real Vermeer. Vreeland's book is a work of art".
-- New York Post
The eight interlinked stories in this impressive debut collection revolve around a single painting by Vermeer; as one might expect, they contain insightful observations about the worth and the truth of art. Vreeland's skill goes deeper still; these poised and atmospheric tales present a rich variety of characters whose voices convey distinctive personalities, and each offers glimpses of Holland during different historical eras. The chronology is reversed: the first story occurs in the present day, and succeeding narratives go back in time to the 17th century. Set in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation, the moving "A Night Different from All Other Nights" portrays the Jewish family from whom the painting will be stolen after they have been sent to a concentration camp, and re-poses the question (also asked in the opening story) of how killers can revere beauty. Two narratives that treat the same eventÄthe birth of a baby and a turning point in a marriageÄtake place in neighboring hamlets near Groningen during the St. Nicholas flood of 1717. Each fills in details the other does not have, and each provides indelible images of brutally hard life in a waterlogged land. In the penultimate "Still Life," set in 17th-century Delft, a poverty-hounded Vermeer begins the portrait of his daughter Magalena. "Magdalena Looking," which closes the book, reflects the evanescence of the moments that paintings capture. Unobtrusively, Vreeland builds a picture of the Dutch character, equal parts sober work ethic and faith in a harsh religion. Against these national characteristics she juxtaposes the universal human capacity for loveÄromantic, familial, parentalÄand a kind of obsessive love, the quest for beauty that distinguishes otherwise ordinary lives. The historical details that ground each narrative in time and place are obliquely revealed. In the same way, the Vermeer masterpiece achieves fuller dimension in each tale as small details of color, brush stroke, lighting, background, serve to create the picture in the reader's eye. Only the opening story disappoints; it seems staged rather than psychologically compelling. The remaining entries are elegantly executed; the characters have the solidity and the elusive mystery of Vermeer's subjects. There is suspense, as well; one wants to read these tales at one sitting, to discover how the Vermeer influenced everyone who possessed it. Vreeland paints her canvas with the sure strokes of a talented artist. Agent, Barbara Braun. Rights sold in Germany to Heyne Verlag. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.