Summer Book Group Reads, Part 2:’The Words in My Hand’ by Guinevere Glasfurd

I hadn’t come across Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Words in My Hand before it got plucked out of the hat as one of my book group’s Summer read choices. I love that book groups introduce you to novels you wouldn’t otherwise encounter, although I must admit that when my copy arrived in the post, I took one look at the cover, and my heart sank. Immediately, I knew that I was familiar territory. Clearly torn between whether to go for the milky pallor of a Vermeer like that on Tracey Chevalier’s The Girl with A Pearl Earring or the illustrated buildings on the cover of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, the marketing department decided to go with both. Don’t even get me started on the printed sticker!

 

Still, in the spirit of not judging a book by its cover, and all that, I decided to reserve judgement until I’d actually read it. The novel is set in 17th Century Amsterdam, inspired by what little is known about Helena Jans, who was a maid to an English bookseller, and who had a relationship with one of his lodgers – Rene Descartes, no less. The premise of the story really grabbed me and once I knew that the tale had been woven around real events, I was eager to read about this young talented woman, to explore their relationship, and to perhaps see Descartes afresh through her eyes.

The novel was beautifully written but I couldn’t help feeling that I’ve encountered this character before. A young servant becomes involved (with or without her consent) with her employer who is an important man in his field. Disaster strikes, but Cinderella-like, she shows stoic forbearance of the injustices suffered because of her gender. To be fair, writing female characters and the contributions they made into male-dominated histories must be a challenge when those women were on the fringes, often confined to domestic roles, but why do these characters always have to face their miserable fates with silent endurance?

In the end, despite some exquisite prose, I felt disappointed by the novel. This felt to me like a wasted opportunity, with the author choosing to dwell on the melancholy and doomed romance rather than engaging with the philosophical questions of the time, which I’d have loved to have seen explored more.  The general consensus from the book group was that it was well-written, but probably best kept for the beach.

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