It can be challenging for writing to capture the joys of other art forms, such as painting or music. For book lovers who appreciate fine art and music as much as literature, these four novels are must-reads. They show how people can feel transported while painting, singing, listening to music, or experiencing art with others.
Girl with a pearl earring by tracy chevalier
Chevalier’s historical novel imagines the origins of the 17th century Dutch painting of the same name by Johannes Vermeer. Griet, a sixteen-year-old girl in 1664 Delft, Holland, must become a maid in Vermeer’s household to help support her family. The book brilliantly describes daily life in 17th century Holland, including religious tensions between Protestants like Griet’s family and Catholics like Vermeer.
Because Griet is perceptive, Vermeer teaches her about painting and asks her to assist him with his art. Eventually, Griet poses for the famous painting, wearing his wife’s earring. It’s easy to identify with Griet and her love for art. This seems especially poignant in a society where women had little power and were not allowed to be artists.
The GoldFInch by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel opens tragically: thirteen-year-old Theo Decker’s mother is killed in a terrorist attack in an art museum. In the chaos, Theo panics and steals The Goldfinch—a real, 17th-century Dutch painting by Carel Fabritius that has never been stolen in real life. This defines his life and his grieving process in unexpected ways.
Theo’s sense of guilt over the painting consumes him. The Goldfinch asks: is it worth owning something that you cannot enjoy? Can a work of art ever belong to an individual, or should the entire world be able to enjoy it? Do our adolescent mistakes define us?
This might sound grim, but the novel also has hilarious moments, like Theo’s teenage adventures with his best friend, Boris. In 2019, The Goldfinch will be a movie, starring Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things as Boris.
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
In the 16th century Ottoman Empire, the Sultan commissions art in the new “Frankish” (European) style from miniaturists, artists of illuminated manuscripts. Some consider this style blasphemous, and one of the miniaturists is murdered in the first chapter.
This novel blends elements of magic realism and mystery. Each chapter has a different, unconventional narrator, including the murder victim; Satan; mystics; and the color red itself. This is a fascinating look at culture clashes and the religious and secular roles of art. Its unconventional style pushes the boundaries of novels as an art form.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Post–9/11, the premise of this 2000 novel might sound bizarre. A renowned American opera singer performs at a birthday party for a Japanese businessman who’s visiting a South American vice president. What starts as a political hostage situation somehow leads to close relationships between the hostages and terrorists. This sounds unbelievable, and I think it might be best to read this novel as a modern fairy tale. It’s filled with beautiful passages about the way that music can enchant people and bridge divides between them.