Thursday, March 29, 2012

Two Novel Reviews in 300 Words or Less

Like the painting it’s based on, this is a very precise novel, full of detail, light and color. In 1665 a lowly maid named Griet takes up residence in the home of Dutch painter Vermeer. From the beginning it’s clear that Griet is the one who will ultimately become Vermeer’s subject, the titular “girl with a pearl earring.” The question that drives this subtle, slow-paced novel is how this young woman, this maid from the lower class, can rise to become the subject of Vermeer’s painting, the exalted woman who keeps Vermeer’s gaze. At a time when women were viewed as little more than brooms and baby-makers, this novel plays with questions of gender roles, sexual repression and religious tribalism.

Tracy Chevalier is an adroit writer with a painter’s sense of perception. Through Griet, Chevalier explores the intricacies of life in 17th Century Holland in an almost fairy tale tone. Most likely I never would’ve read this if it hadn’t been assigned to me for my novel class at Johns Hopkins University. And while it’s by no means a favorite of mine, it is a beautifully written book that captures the sense of a time and place through intricate characters, sensual details and vivid imagery. This book has received a lot of praise, and Chevalier deserves it, as well as the boat-load of royalty payments she must’ve made from selling the screen rights.

“Sister” Rosamund Lupton

“I’d do anything to be with you.”

There’s no better way to start off a dark mystery novel than with a bold, obsessive statement. Beatrice is the narrator of this tale. Her sister, Tess, has just been found dead in Hyde Park, London. All signs point to suicide. But Beatrice, the loving older sister, believes otherwise. Tess, Beatrice believes, would never have killed herself. The mentally unstable Beatrice takes it upon herself to investigate how and why her sister died. Oh, yes, and the entire novel is written as a long letter from Beatrice to her dead sister.

It’s clear from the start that the narrator isn’t exactly in her right mind. Throughout every chapter, there’s a sense of looming madness, paranoia and distrust of strangers. The macabre tone reminds me of the plot-driven, claustrophobic stories of Daphne DuMaurier… and that’s quite a compliment.

The more Beatrice digs, the more she begins to believe that Tess was murdered. Beatrice finds out that Tess has been having an affair with an older, married man, who got her pregnant. Just before her death, her baby died, and that seems to be the end of Tess’ sanity.

Is Beatrice right? Was her sister really murdered? Or is Tess so deranged that she is unwilling to accept the truth?

This is a mystery novel with literary aspirations. Rosamund Lupton is an artist with the English language, and she is able to craft a British mystery novel with the best of them. Yes, there’s a “Gotcha!” ending, and whether it works or not is a matter of personal opinion. But it’s a beautiful foray into the love among sisters and the extent to which we go to protect the ones we love. It’s definitely worth a read if you’re a fan of Agatha Christie or Daphne DuMaurier.

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