Girl in Hyacinth Blue traces the history of a fictional lost Vermeer painting back in time to the moment of its creation through a collection of eight short stories that come together to form a cohesive novel. Each story can be read and appreciated on its own, but when taken all together, they create something greater than the sum of their parts.
The story opens as a new art teacher at a private school is invited to the home of a reclusive colleague. This colleague, Cornelius Engelbrecht, shows him the painting, in the desperate hope of finding a kindred spirit who can appreciate the painting and recognize its true origin. But when asked why he has not made the painting known to the world, we quickly find out that Cornelius is paralyzed by the truth of how his father, a German soldier in World War II, came to own it. If he admits to the world that it is a Vermeer and attempts to auction it or donate it to a museum, questions of provenance will no doubt be raised, and the truth of his father’s role in the German occupation of the Netherlands will also become public knowledge. Tragically, the painting and Cornelius’ enjoyment of it have been tainted irreparably by his father’s crimes.
The one thing he craved, to be believed, struck at odds with the thing he most feared, to be linked by blood with his century’s supreme cruelty.”
The story then moves further back in time to its previous owners: a Jewish family living in Amsterdam during World War II, a Dutch merchant at the turn of the century, a farmer’s wife, a student, and, finally, the Girl herself – the inspiration for the painting.
The author lovingly describes the painting in such detail that you almost forget it is a fictional painting, invented by the writer. You almost begin to believe yourself that this story could be about a lost Vermeer. Each character sees something different in the painting, be it potential justification and vindication for a life poorly spent, a kindred spirit, a remembrance of first love, or unfulfilled hopes and dreams, and each focuses their devotion on a different aspect, whether it’s the subject matter, the light, the setting, or the painter’s skill. At the same time, the stories are all connected by a collective affection, even adoration, for the painting.
As a reader, you begin each story knowing ultimately how it will end, but even knowing this, it is a testament to the author’s skill that you still feel compelled to read on to learn how that person obtained the painting. Through the vehicle of the painting’s mysterious history, Vreeland explores the small, but poignantly significant moments in people’s lives.
Check the WRL catalog for Girl in Hyacinth Blue