What is so fascinating about this novel is the way that the author takes a real life painting, Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring," and imagines the story behind it and in particular, the life of the model that Vermeer used. Through this novel, Chevalier explores not just life and customes in seventeenth century Delft, but also the position of a serving woman who socially is a nobody and is a victim both of predatory males who seek to rape her but also women who look down upon her. Griet is a character who is presented as having no power whatsoever in the house where she works, and her presence is disliked by Vermeer's wife and daughter. When Vermeer asks Griet to help in mixing up the paints he will use for his work, she agrees, but does so knowing that this is the kind of work a maidservant should not do, so she must keep it a secret. What is conveyed is the fascination that Griet feels about Vermeer, this painter who is also her master, who through his skill and art is able to take what she knows and transform it utterly:
He saw things in a way that others did not, so that a city I had lived in all my life seemed a different place, so that a woman became beautiful with the light on her face.
This leads to her own acceptance of being painted. The discomfort she feels at being an object of scrutiny, as she has learnt the hard way to try and avoid the gaze and study of men, is balanced by her mixed feelings for Vermeer and her desire to have her picture painted. Above all else, this book is not so much the study of Vermeer the artist, who remains a shady, insubstantial character, but it is an incredible exploration into the character of Griet, the model of this painting, and what she has to do in order to survive the challenges of every day life as a serving woman.