It's told from the point of view of a house maid, and takes place in 17th century Delft, mostly in the house of the painter Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer painted some of the most amazing paintings in the history of European art, but not very many. He is like Gabriel Faure is for music - an unrivaled master of a small collection of small works, each unique and unforgettable.
The story is about place, position, and the boundaries between. Craftsman, servant, gentlefolk, the very wealthy and powerful. Men and women. Protestant and Catholic. Master and apprentice. The exactly 32 butcher establishments allowed in the city meathall at all times. Guilds and factories. Order is maintained by rigid adherance to place and role. Self control is valued over nearly everything else.
The love story that unfolds is one of the gentlest and sweetest I've read, quite believable, but everyone seems compelled to play their appointed roles and all the explosions happen when someone is forced over a boundary line.
The book is remarkably vivid, and provides a compelling glimpse of the fragile complex of relationships in such a structured society. Like Vermeer's paintings, it is full of peaceful moments, greys and whites, interspersed with vivid yellows and blues. The author's sense of the height of compositional power practiced by this exceptional painter, is also vivid, and may help readers appreciate the unique beauty of his work, and why so many forgeries have been attempted over the intervening centuries. Those who know Vermeer's paintings will be delighted to see so many of them (and the people in them) brought to life in the story.