GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE By Susan Vreeland MacMurray & Beck 242 pp., $17.50
It's no secret that the megabookstores and Amazon.com are crushing America's independent booksellers. But the little guys are raging against the dying of the light.
Their latest act of resistance is binding together to launch an Internet site called BookSense.com. The idea is to re-create online the sort of knowledgeable, quirky locale that distinguishes the independents from the chains.
While publicists and authors' moms clog the Amazon site with outlandishly unreliable raves, BookSense promises to provide recommendations from America's most passionate booksellers.
The site isn't up yet, but BookSense has already started distributing a wonderful monthly list of 76 recommended titles. Other lists hype bestsellers, but "Book Sense 76" is a culmination of votes from more than 1,000 independent booksellers - not their sales, their likes.
Appropriately, the first novel on this new list is a little book by Susan Vreeland called "Girl in Hyacinth Blue." Their choice is a testament to this book's quality, but it's also an encouraging indication of the value of polling the people who care most deeply about books.
Vreeland's novel possesses the strength of its subject. Each of the eight chapters focuses on a small painting by Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch master, who produced quiet paintings with exquisite color and subtlety.
This structure plays to Vreeland's successful career as a writer of short stories, but the novel's fascinating focus on the painting of a young girl holds the book together in a long, thoughtful gaze.
The novel opens in the present day when Cornelius Engelbrecht, a lonely math teacher, invites one of his colleagues from the art department to see a painting he has kept secret for decades.
Though he insists it's an authentic Vermeer, a painting ready "to rock the art world," he explains vaguely, "I prefer it not be known. Security risks. I just wanted you to see it, because you can appreciate it."
The art teacher leaves unconvinced, and Cornelius's dreadful paradox is unresolved. He's spent decades worshipping the painting and enduring the guilt that stains it since he first learned his father stole it from Jews he helped deport from the Netherlands.
As he stares at the girl in blue, the narrator explains, "The one thing he craved, to be believed, struck at odds with the thing he most feared, to be linked by blood with his century's supreme cruelty. He'd have to risk exposure for the pure pleasure of delighting with another ... in the luminescence of her eye."
From this haunting first chapter, the book moves backward in time to the previous owners of the painting. In each new house, all the way back to Vermeer's, it assumes a new meaning.
For little Hannah in Amsterdam, the girl in the blue dress is a model of pensive contemplation amid the rising tide of anti-Semitism. Hannah is burdened with a profound sense that she and her family are living, as Emily Dickinson put it, "between the heaves of storm." In this stunning chapter, nothing more violent than the death of a pigeon takes place, but the horizon glows with horror.
Further back, the painting belonged to a man who loved it as a memory of the love he foolishly lost. For an earlier owner, it's an emblem of the daughter she cannot bear.
Caught in what Vreeland calls "the excruciating complexities" of life, each owner relinquishes the Vermeer only as a last resort. One desperate young man wraps his newborn son with the painting and leaves it on a boat near a flooded house. The note reads, "Sell the painting. Feed the baby."
Vreeland's study of "Girl in Hyacinth Blue" illuminates the hopes and fears we invest in beautiful objects. "In the end," the narrator notes, "it's only the moments that we have." But what exquisite moments they are in this thoughtful book.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society