Not New, But Still Worth Talking About
Posted by: Ted Balcom
My book group came late to Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland’s luminous novel about a Vermeer painting and its various owners from the time of its creation to the present day. It was a giant bestseller when it was originally published back in 1999, but we don’t usually discuss books when they first appear, instead waiting until they become available in paperback. So when we approached this book earlier this week, I wondered if most everyone in the group would have read it long ago and therefore be less interested in examining it at this point.
That did not turn out to be the case, and I probably shouldn’t have worried anyway, since the book is beautifully written and offers many potential discussion opportunities. As I read the book, which is structured as a series of short stories, each one complete in itself yet linked to the others by the presence of the painting, I found myself reflecting on art itself as a topic for discussion — what is it, why is it important, and how does the beholder perceive it?
I asked my group members to share what thoughts about art occurred to them as they read the novel, and the comments were numerous and varied. One participant remarked about how often the work of great artists is undervalued during their lifetimes. Another was impressed by the complexity of creating a painting, which is described in glorious detail in the book. A third person spoke about how different viewers of art come up with varying interpretations of the same work. Someone else spoke about the significance of art lasting longer than the life of its creator and offering pleasure and meaning to people viewing it in subsequent time periods.
Girl in Hyacinth Blue moves backwards from the present day on a college campus, when the current owner of the painting contemplates destroying it because it ties him to a shameful secret, to the 17th century, when it was created in Amsterdam. The book is rich in historical detail — the author has certainly done her homework — and it covers many different periods. Characters are fully delineated in just a few paragraphs, and the reader feels totally transported to another time and place. Each person who owns the painting finds their life changed in some dramatic way by the experience. And finally, the book ends with some sensitive insights into what it means to be a woman with artistic ambition (or at least dreams) and to feel drastically limited by society’s definition of your place, as well as by the lack of personal regard of your own father.
When one first picks up the book and flips through its 242 pages, noticing that it contains only eight chapters, one cannot possibly be prepared for its depth and power and its many penetrating insights into the human condition. As with many books, only after reading it, thinking about it, and discussing it with others who found it equally impressive, can one appreciate the achievement of the author and be especially pleased that it was not overlooked as a source for discussion, simply because it was not the latest “hot” title that everyone is currently talking about.