Sixteen-year-old Griet lives with her family in Delft in 1664. Her father has been recently blinded in an accident, and the family's precarious economic situation forces Griet's parents to find her employment as a maid in painter Johannes Vermeer's household. Becoming a maid casts doubt on Griet's respectability because of the bad reputation that maids have for stealing, spying and sleeping with their employers. It is not revealed how much of this reputation is earned. At the Vermeers, she befriends the family's oldest daughter, Maertge, but is not on good terms with Cornelia, one of Vermeer's younger daughters. She also becomes friendly with Tanneke, the other house servant, but is careful to remain modest and unobtrusive for fear of making Tanneke jealous.
During her months of work at the Vermeers', Pieter, the local butcher's son, starts courting Griet, and the area in which Griet's family lives is struck with plague which leads to the death of her younger sister. Griet is increasingly fascinated by Vermeer's paintings. Vermeer discovers that Griet has an eye for art, and secretly asks her to run errands and perform tasks for him, such as mixing his paints and acting as a substitute model. Griet arouses the suspicions of Vermeer's wife, Catharina, but Vermeer's mother-in-law recognizes Griet's presence as a steadying and catalyzing force in Vermeer's career. Griet is warned by Vermeer's friend, Dr. van Leeuwenhoek, not to get too close to Vermeer because Vermeer is far more interested in paintings than he is in people. Griet realizes that this is true and remains cautious.
Vermeer's wealthy but licentious patron, Van Ruijven, notices Griet and her beauty and pressures Vermeer to paint them sitting together. Griet and Vermeer are initially reluctant to fulfill this request due to Griet's strict modesty and a scandal surrounding the last girl who had been painted with van Ruijven. Eventually, Vermeer comes up with a compromise and paints a portrait of Griet by herself to be sold to van Ruijven. For the painting, he asks her to wear his wife's pearl earrings. When Catharina discovers this, Griet is forced to leave.
Ten years later, long after Griet has married Pieter and settled into life as a mother and butcher's wife, she is called back to the house upon Vermeer's death. Griet assumes that Vermeer's widow wishes to settle the household's unpaid fifteen-guilder bill with the butcher shop. Pieter laughs and says that he didn't mind losing the fifteen guilders because they bought him Griet as a wife. At the Vermeer house, Griet learns that even though Vermeer had made no effort to see or speak to her, he had remained very fond of the painting. In addition, Vermeer's will had included a request that Griet receive the pearl earrings that she wore when he painted her. However, Griet realizes that she could no more wear pearl earrings as a butcher's wife than she could as a maid. She then pawns the earrings for twenty guilders and pays fifteen guilders to her husband, claiming that Vermeer's widow had given her the coins to settle a debt with the butcher shop, but keeps five guilders to herself and never spends them.