Monday, November 16, 2020

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

How old is the oldest book on your physical TBR pile?  Girl in Hyacinth Blue has been on my shelves for thirteen years, at least according to LibraryThing which claims I cataloged it there in 2007.  I'm afraid, it's probably not the most shamefully longsuffering of my neglected TBR.  Happily for it, with a boost from a Litsy challenge, it finally got its moment this year.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue is a novel in short stories.  I usually find this kind of thing to be a bit of a bait and switch.  When I read a novel, I want it to be a novel.  In my middle age, I've developed an appreciation for short stories that has been hard won over a few decades of not caring for them.  Nonetheless, I generally don't like to be surprised by short stories hiding inside a novel.  Here, though, I'll make an exception because how beautifully they're handled and because of the common thread of the painting around which all of them revolve.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue follows a lost, forgotten Vermeer masterpiece from its painting to the study of the son of a Nazi, only it's done in reverse.  As we follow the painting back in time, we meet a son tortured by his father's war crimes so dissonant with the man he knows, a Jewish girl making a sacrifice for safety that is hardly guaranteed, a couple troubled by a husband's former love, a philandering wife matched by a philandering husband, a couple who rescues a baby during a flood, and on back to Vermeer himself struggling to make ends meet and wondering if he shouldn't take a proper job to provide for his impoverished family but unable to turn away from the transcendent beauty that draws his eye and his talent always back to painting.

Though a slim book, Girl in Hyacinth Blue in its journey through history is filled with the richness of human experience and captures all manner of people who themselves are captured by the beauty of  a painting of a girl they will never know and yet feel a kind of kinship with.  The idea of following a painting through history is fascinating on its own.  Vreeland's execution of it is what is truly sublime.