This is one of my cousin's favourite books, and one which I had been meaning to read for over a year. I borrowed a copy from my wonderful local library but it is a book I would very much like for my permanent reading collection.
Set in Holland in the 1660s, Tracey Chevalier creates the character of Griet, a 16-year-old girl sent to work as a servant in the house of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer after her father loses his eyesight in an industrial accident and is unable to continue to earn a living.
Griet has to navigate a difficult household including an eternally pregnant and temperamental mistress, a domineering mother-in-law, a sly and trouble-making daughter, a fractious long-serving cook and a demanding and exacting master. One of her tasks is to clean her master's art studio but she soon graduates to preparing his paints and posing for a painting. This causes tension within the household and threatens a scandal in the town but Vermeer appears to remain oblivious or indifferent to the position he is putting his young servant in.
While running errands in the market place, Griet catches the eye of the son of the local butcher, and soon his father and her family are actively encouraging a marriage they see as advantageous to both.
This book paints a particularly effective picture of the severity of life in 17th century Europe, the long hours and hard work required by all - even the more privileged - to survive, the capricious nature of life, where death or poverty can strike at any time, and the limited choices and options for most women. Yet out of this harshness, a gentle and effective story emerges.