The novel begins in the city of Delft in the year 1664. While at home with her parents, 16-year-old Griet is surprised to be visited by a wealthy couple. The woman seems abrupt with her but the man is interested in the way she has been arranging the vegetables she is chopping. As they leave, the woman explains to Griet's surprise that she has been hired to work as their maid. She is further surprised to learn that the couple is Catholic. Griet has been raised Protestant in an era where members of the two faiths did not often interact, and were often suspicious of one another. It is only after the couple leaves that Griet's father reveals their identity: they are the painter Johannes Vermeer, and his wife Catharina. Griet has been hired to clean his studio, as well as perform general household tasks. Vermeer is seeking a maid who will be very careful not to alter the position of objects in his studio when she cleans. It is necessary for Griet to work since the family is experiencing financial problems: her father has been blinded in an accident, and can therefore no longer work as a tile painter, while her brother Frans is struggling with his role as an apprentice in a tile factory. Nonetheless, her younger sister Agnes is resentful of being left alone.
Within a few days, Griet has set off for her new home, which, though located only a short walk away, is in an unfamiliar part of the city. She arrives to meet the 4 daughters of the family–Maertge, Lisbeth, Cornelia, and Aleydis–as well as the infant son Johannes. She also quickly meets the family's one other servant, a gruff maid named Tanneke, and Maria Thins, Catharina's mother. As Tanneke explains her new duties, Griet quickly gets a sense of the family dynamics. Maria has a great deal of authority and makes most of the domestic decisions. She has a good rapport with her son-in-law, though she is sometimes frustrated that he paints slowly, thus limiting the family's income. Tanneke is fiercely loyal to her, and has limited patience for Catharina, who tends to be lazy and ineffectual. Griet also finds that Cornelia is determined to test her authority, and that she will be in a difficult position since Catharina would side with her daughter and not allow a servant to discipline her child. Additionally, a passing comment from a man whom she asks for help reveals that Griet is considered physically attractive and sexually desirable. Since one of Griet's tasks is to buy meat for the family, she sees the butcher Pieter and his son, also named Pieter, regularly. It is clear that the son is attracted to her, but her feelings towards him are ambivalent.
Griet also adapts quickly to her task of cleaning Vermeer's studio, a room that Catharina is not allowed to enter. She discovers a system of measuring the space between objects before moving them, and then replacing them so that the distance remains constant. While cleaning on the first day, she catches sight of Vermeer's work in progress, a portrait of the wife of his patron, van Ruijven. The woman is depicted in sumptuous fabrics and pearls, filling Griet with envy, as well as with admiration for Vermeer's talent. Her cleaning meets with Vermeer's approval. As Griet settles into her new role, she goes home to visit her family once a week on Sundays. They are curious about the family she works for, but Griet is careful not to reveal any negative details, especially her discomfort at living in a Catholic home. At the same time, she quickly comes to see how humble her own family's home is, and to feel awkwardly caught between two worlds.
One day, when Vermeer has a visitor, Catharina goes to great lengths to avoid him. Tanneke explains that the man, named van Leeuwenhoek, comes to visit with a box that allows one to see things in it, and that Catharina had previously broken it. Griet is confused by this description; the next day, when she is cleaning the studio, Vermeer offers to show it to her. The box, called a camera obscura, allows for the projection of an image. Griet is both startled and intrigued by this device, and also uncomfortable with the experience of talking and being in close contact with her master.
In the novel's opening section, readers become acquainted with Griet's character. While often quiet and reserved on the outside, she is very observant and good at noticing subtle details about the people and situations around her. This quality allows her to thrive in the Vermeer household, both literally and on a more abstract level. She meets Vermeer's exacting standards for how he wants his studio cleaned because she can move and replace objects unobtrusively, giving the impression that they were never touched at all. Likewise, because she notes the psychology of people around her such as Catharina and Tanneke, she is able to subtly achieve her purposes and help the household to function smoothly. Griet's intelligence and good judgment reveal that even though she comes from a humble class origin and has now taken on the somewhat degrading role of household servant, there is more to her than meets the eye. Throughout the novel, she will surprise various characters by proving her intelligence and ability to understand complexities.
At the same time as Griet is able to adapt to her new position, the transition is not easy for her. Her move to the Vermeer household expands her horizons in a number of ways, many of which are uncomfortable for her. The city of Delf, while not large, is fairly strictly divided along lines of class and religion. Griet has never been exposed to the Catholic religion before, and is not sure how to respond to the religious imagery she sees in the Vermeer household. The Catholic faith is very foreign to her, and is something she has been taught mistrust. She is also forced to confront luxury goods such as fabrics and jewels that she has never seen before. Her reactions to Catholicism and luxury goods are somewhat different from one another. She remains suspicious of the ornate and highly visual religious culture, which clashes with her beliefs about simplicity and modesty. But she also feels a strong desire for the luxurious items that she encounters for the first time.
While there is not much description given of Griet's physical appearance, readers can surmise that she is attractive, since she repeatedly draws the attention of men. However, these interactions reveal a power imbalance and make Griet uncomfortable. What seems like a small exchange when she asks the man with a boat to retrieve the jog that has fallen into the canal and he asks for a kiss in exchange, sets the tone for many of the interactions Griet will have in the rest of the novel. She will be pressured to exchange sexual favors for assistance or support; nothing will come without expectations. Because of her combined class and gender position, Griet will be assumed to be available for sexual advances from men, and she will have few options for refusing them.
Although more complicated, Griet's interactions with Pieter the butcher's son are part of this pattern. He is attractive and seems to genuinely care about Griet and want to make her happy. At the same time, his flirtation with her is tied up with ideas of economic exchange: he is not simply offering himself, but also potential economic stability that Griet cannot hope to achieve on her own. The idea that desire is always wrapped up in a web of social expectations is clearly present from the beginning of the novel.