Travels In Vermeer: A Memoir – Michael White
A lyrical and intimate account of how a poet, in the midst of a bad divorce, finds consolation and grace through viewing the paintings of Vermeer in six world cities. In the midst of a divorce (in which the custody of his young daughter is at stake) and over the course of a year, the poet Michael White travels to Amsterdam, The Hague, Delft, London, Washington, and New York to view the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, an artist obsessed with romance and the inner life. He is astounded by how consoling it is to look closely at Vermeer’s women, at the artist’s relationship to his subjects, and at how composition reflects back to the viewer such deep feeling. Through these travels and his encounters with Vermeer’s radiant vision, White finds grace and personal transformation.
Review: Travels in Vermeer was a nominee for the National Book Award in 2015. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, and I even had an opportunity to hear the author give a lecture earlier this year, but I just couldn’t get into this book.
After the death of his first wife and a bitter divorce from his second, poet Michael White finds himself wandering through an art museum. He comes face-to-face with a tiny Vermeer painting that ends up changing his life. He’s so enamored with the painting that he decides to travel the world to see all of Vermeer’s works. Travels in Vermeer blends art and travel with scenes from the author’s life. By studying Vermeer’s art, the author hopes to come to terms with his own string of failed relationships.
I have to start by saying that this memoir is very well-written. I know that the author is mainly a poet, but he’s a talented prose writer, too. I especially like the contrast between the descriptions of artwork and the descriptions of the author’s failed Match.com dates. I was just hoping for more from Travels in Vermeer.
The male gaze is strong in this one. The book is about women, but the author and Vermeer are both men. This didn’t bother me at first, but as the book went on, the author’s descriptions of women (both real and painted) started to get off-putting. The author spends a lot of time focusing on women’s appearances and wondering what women (both real and painted) can do for him. He inserts himself into the lives of the women in the paintings. He claims to know what they’re thinking. It comes across as very self-indulgent and quickly turned me against the author/narrator.
“Her eyes are matter-of-fact, expectant and unsurprised by my presence in the room. She’s waiting calmly for me to take my seat . . . . . We’re used to each other by now.” – Travels in Vermeer.
I may have been able to forgive the narrator if he had changed by the end of the book, but he seems completely unaware of his self-obsessed, "Everything is for me" behavior. Maybe I would have enjoyed this book if I was a man? As a woman, it just made me sad and irritated. I like to believe that men care about more than just my sexiness. I know it doesn’t always show, but I work really, really hard on my brain.
I also had a difficult time getting through the long-winded descriptions of paintings. They’re beautifully written, but reading about a painting isn’t the same as looking at it. I felt the author’s passion for Vermeer, but the descriptions didn’t spark the same passion in me, so most of the book fell flat. My reading experience with Travels in Vermeer was a mixture of interest, irritation, and boredom.
This book just isn’t for me. I tried.