Books: A Portrait of Radiance

Tracy Chevalier brings the real artist Vermeer and a fictional muse to life in a jewel of a novel

Fact: Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) was a Dutch painter with a sketchy biography and exacting pictures that continue to astonish more than three centuries after his death. Fiction: an illiterate girl named Greit, 17, a servant in the Vermeer household, was the model for the artist's celebrated portrait Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Tracy Chevalier is cautious with fact and adventurous with fiction in her novel, aptly titled Girl with a Pearl Earring (Dutton; 240 pages; $23.95). Vermeer's activities as an art dealer and tavern operator are not pushed further than the thready historical record. Greit, on the other hand, is a...

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