Thursday, February 9, 2012

Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett

     It has long been a dream of mine to give up my quiet life as a responsible, law-abiding citizen and turn to crime. Specifically, I want to be an art thief. After stumbling upon a history detailing the discovery of a lost Caravaggio, I have been fascinated by art and its often turbulent history. BUT as romantic and exciting as it sounds to be a professional art thief, the truth is, hardly any of the criminals steal the art for the sake of the art. They do it for plain ol' money. It's just not as glamourous as it seems.

A Lady Writing, attributed to J. Vermeer
     Chasing Vermeer is about an art theft and two children who embark on a mad adventure in hopes of restoring the Dutch master's painting of A Lady Writing. Petra and Calder are in sixth grade, live in Chicago, and are pretty ordinary kids who both have gifts of keen observation. Calder uses patterns and pentominoes to work out all the possible answers or solutions to a puzzle. Petra uses her creative imagination to look beyond the face value of things and makes discoveries that would otherwise be missed. Guided in part by their teacher and in part by a book about unexplained phenomena, the two of them learn to question what others take for granted, what appears to be most obvious, and anything that catches their attention as unusual or unexpected. Knee deep in coincidences and far from accepting the overly-obvious, they learn not to accept without questions what seems to be the truth when they find they are able to scratch to a deeper level and discover nothing is as it seems. 

     Chasing Vermeer is excellent on many levels. The author weaves an intriguing mystery, and throughout it urges the reader to question the world around them and to ask questions. Subtly, we are led to believe in certain scenarios and begin suspecting characters, motives and actions, but in the end it's all overthrown and again the reader has to ask if they really see what they think they see, or instead what they want to see. The suspicion and doubt surrounding characters in this book disappear at the ending plot twist and we realize that the author has cleverly caught us in a trap of taking for granted what looks obvious, while the truth is so much more strange than we had imagined. The author begs readers to observe, question, and to not accept something without giving some thought about whether it's true. It was especially delightful that the author doesn't tell you how to ask and then supply the answers – she just tells you how to ask and gives some starter questions.

     The plot moved quickly, the story was clever, the writing was high quality, the message good. The author puts heavy emphasis on coincidence...or was it really coincidence?...and introduces readers to the fascinating world of understanding art. Unlike the glamour of being an art thief diminishing with the reality that it's all done for money, Chasing Vermeer suggests that the version of the world we're convinced we belong to is much less interesting that reality. We just need to keep our eyes open.

     Oh, and by the way, don't worry...I'm not a theif.


  1. Hey...don't knock plain ol' money till you try plain ol' money LOL! I never knew you wanted to be an art thief!

    This book sounds really cool. Good one for kids. She she doesn't own any kids to give this to, but STILL! Had I kids I might want them to read this. :-)

  2. I really, really, really did not do this book justice. A lesson in not writing at 9 pm. And yes, when I have kids (Lord willing) they will be forcefed quite a lot of books, this one among them.

    The TV show White Collar definitely glamorizes the life of an art thief. But I wanted to be one before I ever saw that show.

  3. Check out the author's website at Great pic of President Obama thumbing through The Danger Box, Balliett's latest kids mystery.