THE NEW YORK TIMES (Richard Eder, 24 January 2000)

For a while it seems that it will be this kind of novel. Namely, the painter Johannes Vermeer hires Griet, a serving girl, to clean his studio. He is struck by her pictorial sense even when she is arranging vegetables on a platter. She shows a brilliantly progressing sensibility for his painting: refusing to clean the windows because it will alter the light on a work in progress, remarking that a map in the background weakens the composition, rearranging a blue cloth to provide the needed touch of disorder for a portrait's serenity.

Finally, as model for what will become the celebrated "The Girl With a Pearl Earring," she knows before Vermeer does that it is precisely the earring's spark that is needed to ignite the portrait. And the painter is captivated by her brilliance as well as her wildly tumbling hair (once she removes her cap) and so . . . bam! boom! . . . a swirl of storm, passions and trouble. In short, an artist romance.

Tracy Chevalier steers her novel deliberately close and tacks abruptly away. The book she has written, despite a lush note or two and occasional incident overload, is something far different and better. All but the last two sentences of the previous paragraphs are there; but they are the armature of a brainy novel whose passion is ideas.

These range among the dynamics and moralities of art and the artist, their claims upon life, life's claims upon them and the struggle of women to find their own values and place in a male hierarchy, specifically in a 17th-century painter's world. There is strong feeling, but it rises unforcedly from the book's tactile evocation of the social, material and emotional detail of life in Delft of the time, and increasingly from the stormy clarity achieved by Griet as narrator and protagonist.

Griet's arrival in the Vermeer household is a descent. She has fallen out of her world. Her father, a tile glazier, belongs to the guild of which Vermeer is master. Thus, when the father is blinded in a kiln explosion, leaving the family near destitute, his membership qualifies his daughter for a menial job. Chevalier draws the distinctions of class in the mercantile Dutch nation as a contour map whose every gradation bruises the feet.

Griet takes up her post as a sacrifice but also with a tremor of excitement. Her father has taught her to revere art. Furthermore, although Griet sleeps in a dirt-floor cellar and must do the washing for the 10 members of the Vermeer household, her special duty gives her a distinction that no one else enjoys: not the painter's high-strung wife, Catharina, nor Maria, his mother-in-law, nor their children.

Only she is allowed into the studio. Her job is to clean without moving anything. It is a skill she learned with her father. In their world or workshop, respectively, blind people and painters both require objects to remain in place; the former because they cannot see, the latter because seeing is so searching and particular.

Griet, her voice perplexed and exploratory (and vibrating occasionally with anger and desire as she struggles to know who she is and where she can fit) tells of the three worlds she finds herself in. There is her intoxicating discovery of her own perceptive gifts as she assists Vermeer, grinding his colors, laying out his paints and ultimately posing. There are her grittier relations with a bitter fellow servant; Vermeer's wife, Catharina, pregnant and increasingly jealous up to a final detonation; the children, some affectionate and one destructively malicious; and Maria, the old mother-in-law, tragically perceptive and tragically restrained in her woman's role from doing what she knows should be done. Finally there is Griet's own family. Her mother, another wise woman, is wary of her daughter's attachment to her master and eager to get her safely married to the butcher's son.

Griet's relations with Vermeer are the motor of the novel and its rising and then falling arc. It stands for much more than itself. Chevalier's pattern is complex and revealing. There is an erotic element, but it is never more than implicit. As for flesh, it is Pieter, the butcher's son and eventual refuge, who stirs Griet. What Vermeer means to her is transformation, the awakening of a larger life and an unsuspected power (the power of art, in short).

Set against this are the material and sexual hegemonies that in art as elsewhere have worked to suppress or exploit such awakenings in women. Think of Suzanne Valadon, a 19th-century painter's model who only after many years and struggles was recognized as a painter; of Camille Claudel, Rodin's model, whose gift for sculpture he jealously belittled.

Vermeer is gray-eyed, calm, seemingly godlike. Participating in his work surely is fulfillment. Griet's mother distrusts it. "I think his paintings are not good for the soul," she says. "From the way you talk they could be of religious scenes. It is as if the woman you describe is the Virgin Mary when she is just a woman, writing a letter. You give the painting meaning that it does not have or deserve." And Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the naturalist, optical inventor and Vermeer's friend, warns Griet when he sees her posing for "Girl."

"His eyes are worth a room full of gold," he tells her. "But sometimes he sees the world only as he wants it to be, not as it is. He does not understand the consequences for others of his point of view. He thinks only of himself and his work, not of you." He adds: "The women in his paintings -- he traps them in his world. You can get lost there."

That warning comes true but only in part. Griet had known before her painter did that the portrait needed the flash of the earring. She knew that using the earring (Catharina's) would mean disaster. She protested; he insisted, interested only in the painting, not in her or the consequences.

She bears the consequences. She refuses to be lost, though, and her refusal is the book's triumph, opening the way to an ending, 10 years later, that weaves together, sardonically and exhilaratingly, the social and artistic complexities that Ms. Chevalier has so pungently presented.