Girl With a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

Girl With a Pearl EarringI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it has been nothing but comics and book club books for the last couple months ’round these here parts. This year that’s been a pretty good thing, because I’m picking the books for one club and my friends are picking the books for the other, and there’s always great discussions to be had.

This book, however, definitely suffered from New Book Club Syndrome. The club at my library wanted an official library moderator, so I stepped in and read the book at the last minute and spent all the time after that nervous about meeting new people whose opinions I don’t already understand. Noooooot the greatest reading environment.

It is possible that NBCS is why I got to the book club meeting and wondered if the other members and I had read the same book, but it’s also possible that this is a terrible book and they’re all just wrong. I’d tell you to read it and get back to me, but I really don’t want to inflict the book on you.

Here’s the basics: The book purports to tell the story behind the painting Girl With a Pearl Earring, which is a pretty plain painting of… a girl… wearing a pearl earring. This is not rocket science. In the story, a girl called Griet (who is, as I understand, completely invented for this book) must leave her family, suffering after her father’s loss of sight and thus loss of tile-painting job, to go work as a maid in the Vermeer household. Life as a maid is rough, but things get much better and much worse for Griet when Vermeer decides to make her his secret assistant, having her prepare paints for him and eventually sit as his subject.

And, seriously, if I had known that was what this book was, I would have read the Cliff’s Notes of the movie and called it a day. But the book is short, and I wanted to do it right, so I ended up reading the whole thing. Ugh.

At book club, after everyone else talked about how great the writing was and how evocative the imagery was and how wonderful the historical setting was, they were like, so, what did you think? When my attempt to plead the fifth failed, I said something like, well, the writing was terrible and the characters were boring and I just didn’t care about any of it. And then I sat quietly and let them love on the book because I’m not a monster.

But, seriously. From the very beginning I knew the writing wasn’t for me — there’s a lot of telling rather than showing, there’s a lot of Griet knowing things that she doesn’t seem like she should know anything about, and the sentences are full of unnecessary words or missing important words like “Vermeer”. But maybe the characters would make up for it? No, it’s mostly just Griet in the book and she’s the one thinking all those unnecessary words and also painting all the other characters as just one thing, good or bad. Maria Thins was okay, but even she was mostly inscrutable.

And then I didn’t care about the plot because I didn’t care about Griet and she is the only thing going in this whole darn book. I don’t care how hard your maid work is, I don’t care about your weird suitor and your weirder crush, I don’t care about this apparently horrible scandal that you don’t seem to be getting that worked up about.

The one maybe interesting bit of the novel is the part where Vermeer recruits Griet to make paint and we get a couple pages about how paint used to be made with bits of bone and other weird stuff and stored in… kidneys? I think?… and then we get a couple other pages about Vermeer’s painting process, which involves a camera obscura so that’s pretty cool. Facts! I like them!

So, yeah. I was definitely not the target audience for this book, and I definitely wish I hadn’t bothered reading it, but if you’re an art person or a Netherlands person or an historical fiction person, you’ll probably like this a heck of a lot better than me.

The Dinner, by Herman Koch

The DinnerWell, this was a book. A book I had no intention of reading, but then my book club picked it and I was in a reading slump with literally nothing else I was interested in and I figured, hey, maybe this will get me consuming books again. And it did, so plus ten points to my book club on that one?

But the book itself? Blergh. I had one of those strange reading experiences where I wanted to know what the heck was going on, so I was turning pages rapidly and taking very few breaks from reading… but I was not really enjoying the experience. Sure, I was curious how everything was going to turn out, but I didn’t actually care about the plot or the characters or anything in the book.

This is probably partially by design — the book is written in a close first person that gives no details about anything useful and all the details about the things that don’t matter, because that’s what the narrator wants to focus on.

The book takes place over the course of the titular dinner, with scenes from the dinner interspersed with flashbacks to earlier that evening, earlier that year, and earlier in various relationships that give varying degrees of context to the dinner at hand. At the beginning, all you really know is that a dude doesn’t want to go out to dinner with his brother; at the end there are far more pressing concerns about everyone at the table.

It’s a neat conceit, I’ll admit, and that conceit is definitely what kept me flipping pages. How is this detail going to come into play later? Does this seemingly throwaway sentence have greater import? How is the narrator going to reconcile this situation he’s describing with the life he thinks he’s living?

But the problem is, I didn’t really care about the narrator. He seems set up to be an unlikeable narrator, and I’ve seen this book compared to books like Gone Girl in that regard, but he is so completely detached from the unlikeable things that he does that I just can’t muster up feelings for him either way. I would love to hate him. But I don’t. Ditto for every other character in the book.

As often happens in cases like this, going to book club was helpful for increasing my respect for the book, if not my enjoyment of it. One of the more interesting things I picked up was a perspective on the book from someone who is a little bit obsessed with the Netherlands (the book is set there and translated from the Dutch). There is a particular event that this book, and the dinner itself, centers on, and it’s kind of weird, but my friend pointed out some social norms and policies that are different in the Netherlands that make the event, and the characters’ reactions to the event, make far more sense. So therefore I’m going to chalk up all the other things I didn’t understand to the cultural gulf between me and Holland.

So, yeah. It’s an interesting book to read, style-wise, but I wish the style had been wrapped around, say, any other story. Not the greatest book to kick off 2016 with, but it definitely inspired me to get reading and get some better books in my brain! Any suggestions for the year?

Recommendation: For fans of style over substance, Dutch-ness, and weird people doing very weird things.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchI read Tartt’s The Secret History a few years back and said then that I liked it okay but would probably like it better with time. This was a very accurate statement, as I remember the book fondly enough to be kind of excited about reading an 800-page novel by the same author. Eight hundred pages. Criminy.

I actually had to take a break in the middle of reading this book to go read Their Eyes Were Watching God for my book club, this book was so long, and it was kind of weird, actually, because I found myself thinking that Hurston’s novel was kind of not really about anything and therefore kind of boring, while at the same time being really excited to get back to Tartt’s novel, which was kind of not really about anything but somehow quite gripping.

Probably this has to do with the fact that there is one overarching plotline through the whole book, which is that at the very beginning of the book our protagonist, Theo, survives a terrorist attack at a New York art museum and also kind of maybe steals a really famous painting on his way out, for reasons that make sense at the time. Theo’s mother does not survive the bombing, and so Theo and the painting get shuffled around the country as he goes to live with a friend’s family and then his own deadbeat father and then with a person he met via the terrorist attack. And of course the longer Theo has this painting the harder it is to a) give it up and b) give it up without getting in scads of trouble.

The rest of the story, during the first part of the book, is about Theo dealing with his mother’s death and the indifference of his father’s family and his missing father and then his suddenly fatherly father and how a kid can survive an event so catastrophic. There’s a lot about Theo going about his life in New York, and then creating a new life with his father in Las Vegas that involves doing pretty much every terrible thing a teenager can do, because why not, and then going back to New York and trying to figure out what kind of life to live there. It is not unlike reading about your own childhood, though yours probably had less drug-taking, but there’s also this painting and what the heck is going to happen with this painting??

Then in the second part everything changes — Theo, who I was totally rooting for even in Las Vegas, turns into an adult who makes incredibly poor life choices and I was like, fine, don’t be a decent human being, see if I care. And then his bad decisions start having consequences and people are threatening him and other people are showing up with some nasty surprises and then the whole thing goes to Amsterdam and nothing good can come of Amsterdam. (Actually, I adore Amsterdam and had a fine bad-decision-free time there, but you know what I mean.)

I like the first part of the book quite a lot, and I liked the second part quite a lot probably only because of the first part. The story goes a little off the rails with all the stuff that is happening to Theo all at once and with the forgeries and the thievery and the guns and violence… it’s obviously super exciting at this point, and I really kept reading hoping that Theo would make it out of all these situations relatively unharmed, but it is rather more bonkers than I was prepared for.

And then the ending… much as I did with The Martian, I am allowing most of the ending but pretending the last couple of pages were mysteriously missing from my copy of the book, because I hear that those last couple of pages tie things up just a little too neatly for certain people’s sensibilities and that it probably does a disservice to the rest of the story. I hear.

But as I said at the beginning, the plot of the story isn’t really the important part; the story is really about Theo as a character and his interactions with the other characters and Tartt, as always, brings it in that regard. I loved and hated Theo, and although I enjoyed discovering the personalities and secrets of the other characters along with him, I liked also that Tartt gave those characters enough personality that I could tell when Theo was being particularly obtuse about one friend or another. Or all of them, really. Possibly most impressively, Tartt gives the titular painting its own sort of enigmatic personality, enough that I totally want to go see this painting in person along with apparently every other person who read this book. This is clearly a good reason to go back to The Netherlands, yes?

Recommendation: For people with a lot of time to give to this novel, people who like to hate characters, and people who don’t mind some bonkers in their literary fiction.

Rating: 9/10