Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue traces the changing ownership of a fictional Vermeer painting over several centuries, from its creation to modern day, and fleshes out the stories of each family and why they appreciate the work. Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue begins when aging Professor Engelbrecht invites an art scholar friend to his basement to examine a painting he owns and believes may be an original Vermeer interior scene. He admires the work but has never shown it to anyone else, as he inherited it from his father, who had been a Nazi soldier. Torn about keeping it, he nearly destroys the work out of guilt. Yet he stops himself because he is drawn to the painting's beauty and skill, especially after his friend suggests that it might be authentic.
Next, we see the previous owners of the painting, a Jewish couple in the Netherlands with a lively son and his quieter little sister. The young girl interrupts work she should be doing to help prepare for Passover dinner to look at the work, entranced by the idea of someone as shy and thoughtful as she is. They have some pet pigeons upstairs, which unfortunately someone has to kill, as Jews at the time were no longer allowed to own birds who could be trained as messengers. The birds' death represents a coming of age for the girl, as she realizes that the world outside her home can be scary and violent.
Next, there's a comfortable, middle-aged Dutch couple walking on the beach. Their daughter is getting married and they need a suitable gift for her. The wife considers giving them the Vermeer painting that's been on their wall for years, as it makes her think of a happy home. However, the painting reminds the husband of his first love, who was not his wife. At his wife's urging, he tells her finally what he's been thinking of all these years when he sees the painting, and it annoys her, although he has been a loving, faithful husband for many years.
Then we see the family who sold the husband the painting. The housewife found the painting, along with an abandoned baby, in a small boat after a flood, with a note: Sell the painting. Feed the child. She and her husband take in the baby and raise him, but life is hard and he is another mouth to feed. The wife loves the painting, as she feels she is trapped in a dreary life working hard in a cold, gray climate. Her husband tells her to go sell it as they need the money, but she holds onto it as long as possible, imagining herself in another world, where she can sit and think in a warm, comfortable room. After the winter thaws, when she can get to town and market, she prepares meals from the seed potatoes so they can keep eating. When her husband goes to get those for spring planting, and finds them gone, he is furious. She goes and stays with her mother for awhile, in the warmer town where she grew up, with more colorful flowers and homes. She realizes how homesick she has been, and feels sure her mother will sympathize with her about the painting. But instead, her mother tells her to give up her silly luxury and be glad she has such a hardworking husband. So, at last, she heads for town and sells the piece.
Then, we see the man who put the painting in the boat with the baby, his son. He was a young student, living a casual/Bohemian lifestyle while home on summer break. He has a love affair with a young woman who is quite beautiful but has serious mental issues and also old country superstitions. She gives birth to twins, loses touch with reality and kills one of them, for which she is publicly hanged. Powerless to save the woman he loves, and who both entrances and repulses him, he hides her surviving baby in a garret to avoid the public disgrace of his having fathered the child of a woman suspected of witchcraft. When a flood comes to town, he puts the baby boy in a canoe, with the note and the painting.
Next, there's an elegantly dressed noblewoman in an unhappy arranged marriage, who finds herself attracted to a younger man. The painting is something simple for her to look at and admire, a peaceful family home scene in the midst of her collapsing marriage.
Near the end, we see Vermeer himself, thoughtful as always, arranging the interior scenes and waiting for the lighting to be just so for him to paint. He wonders if he will be able to make it financially or if he will have to return to some other sort of work, but things work out in time for him to be able to create another miniature. He admires his own work, the delicacy of the simple image, a painting of his daughter.
Finally, Vermeer's daughter speaks for herself, both as a young girl, restless with having to stand still to pose for so long, and as a grown woman, admiring the work after her father's death. As a girl she longed to be taught her father's trade, to learn to do something real to satisfy her curiosity about the world. But her father kept to himself, needing quiet to work, and assuming she'd grow up to become a housewife and did not need that kind of education. She thought to ask him to teach her, but could never find the words or get up the courage.
As a grown woman, she finds his painting of her at an estate sale. She admires the work, and wonders at the idea of having a picture of her go out to a stranger. Strange, she reflects, to have someone get so close to her without ever knowing her, just thinking of her as an ideal of beauty.
Best part of story, including ending:
I loved how each chapter connected to the others through a common theme and motif. Not just through the painting itself, but through illustrating all the different reasons why people appreciate and collect art (appreciation of the artist's skill, identifying with the people in the painting, needing some beauty to enhance their lives, etc).
Best scene in story:
The scene and story that was most affecting for me was the piece about the hardworking country housewife, up north in a place where everything was cold and dreary, where her husband was loving and hardworking but talked and thought mostly about simple potatoes. She held onto the painting secretly for months, eating the seed crops so as not to have to sell the painting to buy more food. It became her escape, a reminder that life was more than labor and food, until at last she had to part with it. Even her own mother did not understand the value of the painting to her, and chided her for not appreciating her hardworking husband and for holding on to a luxury, but Vreeland did a very evocative job of communicating why the miniature of the young woman meant so much to her.
Opinion about the main character:
Vermeer, the painter, gave dignity to ordinary life, the home and family, through his choices of subject matter in his paintings. He showed respect for the women in his life - mothers, daughters, servants - in this way, and Vreeland brings this through in the novel. However, in this book he had a blind spot in that he didn't see that his own daughter, who served as a model for his work, could have enjoyed and learned from classes in how to paint. Painting didn't just have to be men's work.