Rather than writing a story of Vermeer having an illicit relationship with the household maid, Chevalier builds tension in the work with the depiction of their restraint. As Time magazine notes, Chevalier presents "an exquisitely controlled exercise that illustrates how temptation is restrained for the sake of art". The restraint is also a function of the distanced style that Chevalier chose for her narrator, Griet. It has been noted that its aim is to replicate Vermeer’s style of painting. It concentrates particularly on visual detail, both in the appearance of characters and of domestic surroundings, and their spatial placing in relation to each other.
It is this cool approach that differentiates the book from the three other novels published in 1999 which also deal with 17th century Dutch painting. Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue is a set of stories centred upon a supposedly lost painting by Vermeer; and Katharine Weber’s The Music Lesson deals with the stolen Vermeer painting of that title. Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever, on the other hand, is set in Amsterdam and also deals with the love between a painter and his subject. In addition, it too started from an attempt to decipher the enigmatic look of the sitter in a painting of the period.
Another theme - that is demonstrated in the narration rather than commented on overtly - is how women of that time, in Lisa Fletcher’s words, “did not own their bodies, but were the possessions first of their parents, then of their employers, and finally of their husbands. As the novel progresses, Griet becomes increasingly aware that she is ‘for sale’". She is given no choice by her parents over whether or where she will work. Van Ruijven and other characters assume she is sexually available simply because she is an unchaperoned maid. And once Pieter becomes Griet’s accepted suitor, her parents leave her alone to his physical advances, anticipating that the match will be to their benefit.
Apart from Girl with a Pearl Earring itself, in which Griet is the sitter, several more of Vermeer’s paintings feature in Chevalier’s novel. At the very start, View of Delft is recalled by Griet’s father. When Griet enters the household, Vermeer is working on Woman with a Pearl Necklace and Tanneke mentions soon after that she had been Vermeer’s model for The Milkmaid. His next subject is Woman with a Water Jug, for which the baker’s daughter models. Griet describes the painting to her father and also witnesses its creation in closer detail now that she is helping in the studio. Van Ruijven’s wife (Maria de Knuijt) later models for A Lady Writing a Letter. During this episode it is recalled that she had previously appeared in Woman with a Lute and that her husband had seduced the maid who sat for The Girl with the Wine Glass. Van Ruijven himself, a sister and a daughter, figure in The Concert, which is conceived of as a successor to The Music Lesson. A final painting, The Procuress, is not Vermeer’s painting of that title but a genre piece by Dirck van Baburen that belongs to Maria Thins. This hangs on the wall to the right of The Concert.
These paintings that survive compensate for the lack of much real information available in the historical record about the main male characters. That has allowed Chevalier to integrate into her imaginary scenario some of the few facts that are known about Vermeer and so give her fiction the appearance of reality. But scarcity of evidence extends outside the Vermeer household as well. Although Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is known to have acted as executor to Vermeer’s will, there is no documentary proof of friendship between the two. Van Leeuwenhoek was certainly interested in optical devices and it has been speculated that Vermeer made use of a camera obscura, but that is as far as the evidence goes. Again, there is a high level of probability that Pieter van Ruijven was Vermeer’s patron, since 21 of the artist’s paintings belonged to his estate, but no documentary evidence survives. And there is certainly not the slightest hint that he was the sexual predator that Chevalier portrays.
Such considerations are important since, as Lisa Fletcher argues, historical novels “intervene in our view of the past” and influence our reaction to it in the present. Thus it was noted that the 2001 exhibition of “Vermeer and the Delft School” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York “attracted almost twice the number of visitors than the Vermeer exhibition held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1996. For Walter Liedtke, the gallery's curator of European paintings, the success of [the exhibition] was due, at least in part, to Chevalier's novel.”