Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Review: Midnight Blue by Simone van der Vlugt

The high point of my artistic career is a self-portrait, drawn in marker, and forever captured on a melamine plate from pre-school more than four decades ago. I was so advanced for my age I even remembered to give myself eyelashes. If that’s not long-lasting genius and a genuine artistic legacy, I don’t know what is. It may not be the Mona Lisa but surely it’s up there with beautiful ceramics like Chinese porcelain and Delftware. OK, maybe not; my talent may not be one for the ages but we do know how it developed (or didn’t). We don’t actually know which potter came up with the idea for Delft Blue, just that it was a cheaper but incredibly popular alternative to Chinese porcelain and came to prominence in the 1650s. Simone van der Vlugt has written a fictional beginning for the rise of these blue and white decorative pieces, assigning the inspiration for the pottery to an artistic, young widow from a rural Dutch village in the novel, Midnight Blue.

Catrin Barentsdochter endured much in her brief marriage: the premature birth and death of her baby and terrible abuse from her husband. She’s not sorry he’s dead only a year into their life together and after selling her inheritance from him, she leaves her family and the small village of De Rijp behind for a housekeeper position in a larger town nearby. When that falls through, she ends up going to Amsterdam and it is there that her artistic talent is accidentally discovered. The past she's fleeing catches up with her though and she runs even farther, ending up working at a pottery owned by the brother of her previous employer. Not only is Catrin a good painter, she is innovative and astute, suggesting to her kindly boss that they try to mimic the blue and white pieces of Chinese porcelain that are all the rage. And so Delft Blue is born. But Catrin’s past won’t stay away and her life and the revelation of her huge secret is threatened again.

Van der Vlugt weaves pivotal and fascinating Delft history in with her story of this determined young woman, credibly placing Catrin near the gunpowder explosion and fire that destroyed much of Delft in 1654 and in the midst of the rampaging plague epidemic of 1655. The details of pottery making included here are not extensive but are incredibly interesting nonetheless. Catrin is a practical and generally strong character although occasionally her actions and language seem anachronistic for a woman in the 1650s. Whether that is a function of the author’s writing or of the translation is hard to tell. The secondary characters are fairly one dimensional and the ending is quite neat and convenient given the reality and fragility of life at the time. There is a romance that feels rather rushed and could have used elaboration but even as it stands, it does drive the story forward and figures into Catrin’s decisions several times. Fans of historical fiction will find this an easy, fast, and generally engaging read set at a time and a place not often found in English language works and they might even be inspired to learn a little more about the actual pottery and of Delft’s place in the Dutch Golden Age.

For more information about Simone van der Vlugt and the book, check out her webpage, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter. Check out the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.
Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and Harper Collins for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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