Several years ago, a little artsy theater in Menlo Park, California, had on its marquee just, “Vermeer was Here,” in way of a promo for the movie Girl with the Pearl Earring. I furrowed my brow as I tried to puzzle that one out. I vaguely knew about the movie and book, but I didn’t know who Vermeer was. Although I cleared everything up with an internet search, Vermeer and Tracy Chevalier were ever after connected in my mind with the uncomfortable feeling of being on the “I don’t get it” side of a joke. (Menlo Park and Palo Alto frequently left me feeling that way.)
When the book club selection this month was “The Works of Tracy Chevalier,” I nearly passed it along. Although Girl with the Pearl Earring wasn’t one of the three options for the meeting, I was still hesitant to read anything by Chevalier. I didn’t want that “outsider” feeling again. I get that enough living in New England (although here it’s not quite the same as the California “outsider” feeling…more a cold shoulder than a derisive smirk). But I also pretty much live my life with the purpose of proving my preconceived notions wrong, and that inclination won out at the last minute. I took the kids on our weekly library visit this Friday and left with The Virgin Blue and the intention to power through it this weekend in preparation for book club Monday night.
I was pleased to find that it was a quick read and required little effort to power through. The story was interesting, as was the device she used to tell it. The book consists of the interwoven tales of Isabelle and Ella, members of the same family separated in time by 400 years. When she and her husband move to France, Ella begins to be haunted by a recurring nightmare. She begins to believe that finding out the secrets to her family tree will help to cure her of the nightmare, and so the story progresses.
Chevalier’s handling of the interwoven story technique isn’t expert, but it’s not bumbling either. The interpersonal interactions seemed realistic if a little overly simplistic. Towards the end, the action sped up and the various characters going hither and thither across Europe began to feel a little cumbersome. There were a few too many symbols in the story (the wolf, the shepherd, the blue, the red hair), which just made the connection between Ella and Isabelle seem a bit too tidy. And the fact that Ella was a midwife was kind of an unnecessary detail. It was an interesting connection but didn’t really play a large role in the story. I think it was meant to explain her “uncanny” ability to spot a pregnant woman before the woman herself even knew about it, but when a librarian/researcher/archivist person can do the same thing, that sort of makes the “midwife” connection less significant.
All the same, this is the kind of first novel I enjoy reading. It’s not perfect, but it shows promise. The characters seemed interesting to me, they developed over time, and there’s a quality to Chevalier’s descriptions and sense of connection that makes me curious about her later novels. As an on-again, off-again writer of fiction, I don’t like a first novel that’s awesome and expertly crafted right out of the gate. But as a reader, I don’t like a really crummy first novel, either. The Virgin Blue was a fun read and wasn’t so bad that it threatened my faith in humanity nor was it so good that it threatened my self confidence in my own writing.