Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland
In eight quasi-connected stories, Susan Vreeland delivers a fictional lesson on aesthetics. Set amidst human sorrow and historic chaos, the narrative follows an imagined Vermeer painting from the present day through 330 years of its provenance--beginning with its willful destruction in the 1990s and concluding with its inspired creation in the 1660s:
Chapter 1. 1995(?): in Pennsylvania, math teacher Cornelius Englebrecht burns the painting in his fireplace; 1942: in Amsterdam, from the Vredenburg home, German soldier Otto Engelbrecht loots the painting, hides it, and absconds with it to America.
Chapter 2. 1940: in Amsterdam, diamond merchant Sol Vredenburg buys the painting for his daughter Hannah as a gift for her 11th birthday.
Chapter 3. 1899: in Vreeland, engineer Laurens van Luyken, having originally purchased the picture as an anniversary gift for his wife, decides to give it to his daughter Johanna, engaged to the Amsterdamer Fritz.
Chapter 4. 1803: in The Hague, French aristocrat Gerard buys the painting from a Dutch noble; wife Claudine absconds with and sells it, without the documents attesting to its authenticity.
Chapter 5. 1717-18: from the floodwaters of Delfzijl, scholar Adriaan Kuypers flees with the painting to Oling where he relinquishes it to the farmer's wife, Saskia, who sells it to a dealer in Amsterdam.
Chapter 6. 1717: in Delfzijl, Aunt Rika, wife of a slave trader, offers the painting as a bribe to her nephew Adriaan to hide the evidence of his bastard child and keep her name respectable.
Chapter 7. 1665-8: in Delft, Vermeer begins and completes the painting of his daughter Magdelena.
Chapter 8. 1675: in Delft, Vermeer dies, and after his death his daughter Magdelena sells the painting to the local baker; later, in Amsterdam in 1696, Magdelena observes a "nice family" buying the painting at auction.
Topics For Discussion
1. The plot summary reveals that much of the picture's provenance remains unknown. Why do you think Vreeland leaves blank so much of the picture's history? Where do you imagine the painting was, say, between 1803 and 1890? Why do you think Vreeland places the painting in periods of history reflecting so many atrocities? What would have been gained--or lost--from this novel had the author placed the picture in more heroic moments of human history?
2. For many readers the chapters seem uneven in quality. Which chapters seem to you more/less successful than the others? Can you say why some fail to work as well as others?
3. The original title for the opening chapter was "Love Burning." What additional textual evidence exists to affirm the painting's destruction by Cornelius? Do you think that Cornelius makes a morally correct decision when he burns the picture? Do you think that Richard ought to have stepped in to save it?
4. In "A Night Different From All Other Nights," Hannah slaughters the family's pet pigeons....