The novel sets out in the year 1664. 16 year-old Griet is living with her family in the Dutch city of Delft. Her father went blind through an accident at work and therefore he isn't able to work any more. For this reason Griet is forced to take up work as a maid for the famous painter Vermeer and his Catholic family. Already when he observes her preparing vegetables, Vermeer discovers her artistic talent. However, this talent has no meaning for a maid. As soon as she arrives at Vermeer's home she gets her tasks assigned by the senior maid, called Tanneke. Griet has to do housework of any kind. However, her special task is to clean Vermeer's studio without moving anything. The items which he is just portraying have to stay exactly at their place.
Catharina is Vermeer's wife. When she sees Griet the first time she already dislikes her because her husband pays Griet all his attention and she is jealous.
Griet has a lot of work with the five children, four girls and one boy, from a toddler up to a ten year old. Cornelia, one of the girls, is very moody and always wants to annoy Griet.
At the beginning the whole situation is very tiring for Griet because everything is very new to her and she is feeling alone because she can't laugh with anybody.
Griet's only place of refuge is the studio, which she normally has to clean. She likes being there and contemplates the pictures the master is painting.
From the butcher's son Pieter, who is interested in Griet, she learns that her own family have been put in quarantine because the plague has broken out in their street. At the end of the summer, Agnes, her ten-year-old sister, dies of the plague.
On Sundays it is difficult for Griet and her brother Frans, an apprentice, to visit her parents, since the mood is very sad. One year before there were three children, now none of them is at home any more.
Inspired by Griet, Vermeer resumes his painting after having sold the picture which he had been working on for a long time. From now on Griet is his personal assistant, but nobody should know. She is the only person he has confidence in. Vermeer is willing to show her how to properly mix the colours and he also appreciates a lot of her suggestions for the improvement of his paintings. Prior to getting to know Griet, he had never thought that he could learn anything from a maid.
When Van Ruijven, Vermeer's rich client, sees Griet, he orders Vermeer to paint a picture of her. Catharina should not learn anything about this project. Therefore, he paints Griet in secret. Vermeer is not happy with the picture since something seems to be missing. After a while he realises that these are the unique pearl earrings of his wife, and he insists thatGriet should wear them. Catharina becomes aware of the picture and gets very angry. She attacks her husband for painting Griet and not herself. Griet turns on her heel and leaves the house and she knows that she will never come back.
Ten years later Griet is married to Pieter, the butcher's son, and has two children. She learns that Vermeer has recently died and in his last will it is put down that she should getCatharina's pearl earrings.