Sunday, May 21, 2006

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

A luminous tale about art and human experience that is as breathtaking as any Vermeer painting.

A professor invites a colleague from the art department to his home to see a painting that he has kept secret for decades. The professor swears it is a Vermeer--but why has he hidden this important work for so long? The reasons unfold in a series of events that trace the ownership of the painting back to World War II and Amsterdam, and still further back to the moment of the work's inspiration. As the painting moves through each owner's hands, what was long hidden quietly surfaces, illuminating poignant moments in multiple lives. Vreeland's characters remind us, through their love of this mysterious painting, how beauty transforms and why we reach for it, what lasts and what in our lives is singular and unforgettable.

Written as a series of short stories, we read how the painting has affected each of the people who acquired and then owned the painting. Originally a couple of the stories had been published as short stories, but then Vreeland decided to fill in the gaps and this book was born.

Not only is the cover gorgeous, so is the writing, with Vreeland giving us moments of pain, moments of beauty....moments in the life of the people lucky enough to be touched by the beauty of the painting.

We start with the professor who has owned the painting for years, in same ways it is the only real connection he has with his father. There are no papers to prove the authenticity of the painting, but he insists that it is a Vermeer. He has studied the brush strokes, the technique in his search to confirm his belief. But why would he have it hidden away? Why would he contemplating destroying the painting? Facing the circumstances of how it came to be in their lives.

Working our way back, the second chapter is focused on the home of a young Jewish girl living in Amsterdam during WWII. Her family is about to celebrate the Passover, but they do so under the watchful and ever present eyes of the Nazi soldiers that are occupying their country.

The third chapter is a about the relationship between married couple as they contemplate the upcoming marriage of their daughter. The wife wants to give her daughter the painting as a gift but the man is loathe to let it go given that for him it is a reminder of his first love. This revelation causes the couple to evaluate some aspects of their relationship.

The fourth story is about a bored socialite who courts scandal by falling in love, or maybe lust, with a young musician. She is actually a young Frenchwoman who has been brought to Holland by her husband who is in theory working in a negotiating role, but it appears that he is more engaged in an affair. This is the point in the story where the papers are separated from the painting, therefore making it difficult to confirm the identity of the painter.

Next up a young family is living in their attic with all their precious possessions, including the cow, as the workers of the town try to repair the broken dikes and pump the water back out of the land, and free the people from their unending vista of flood waters. The painting comes to the family in unusual circumstances, and the wife needs to decide what her priorities are.

The next one was my favourite I think. A young couple are involved in a secret relationship find that they are going to be parents. Even when giving birth, no-one is allowed to know, but then the young mother is arrested and hung. The father has to figure out how to look after the child that is left.

In the penultimate chapter, the painting is created. The painter is however struggles to provide for his family and so it is a real struggle for him to decide whether or not he can continue to paint or if he should try to get an actual job to be able to start providing properly for his family.

The final chapter is about the subject of the painting - a young girl desperate for her father to recognise their kindred spirits.

Very enjoyable read.

Rating 4/5

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