In the 1700s, 18-year-old Petronella (Nella) Oortman is a poor girl from the Dutch countryside. A month before the story begins, she married wealthy Amsterdam merchant Johannes Brandt. Nella’s mother arranged the union with this man who is several decades older than Nella. The girl barely knows her husband.
Nella arrives at the Brandt estate, anxious to start being a “real wife.” Johannes is out of town, but she meets his prickly, pious sister, Marin, a maid named Cornelia and a black servant named Otto. She feels out of place immediately, and even more so when her husband returns.
Nella’s mother coached her in the unpleasant but necessary aspects of satisfying her husband, so Nella has mentally prepared herself for sex. She even hopes a romantic love will blossom. But Johannes doesn’t touch her and barely acknowledges her presence.
He does give Nella a costly wedding gift, a large cabinet that is an exact miniature replica of the Brandt house. Nella is secretly offended. It’s as if he, and all her new housemates, see her as a child who can only build a dollhouse, not a wife who can run a home.
Marin and Johannes often argue about business. Marin is particularly concerned with a large amount of sugar Johannes has agreed to sell for Agnes and Frans Meermans. It has been sitting in the warehouse for a while, and the Meermans are growing anxious that Johannes isn’t trying hard enough to get them their money.
Johannes travels to meet with potential buyers, and Nella feels lonelier than ever. She decides to use some of the money Johannes has given her to furnish her dollhouse. She sees an ad for a miniaturist and places an order for a few items.
She’s thrilled when a handsome young deliveryman named Jack brings the miniaturist’s package. Opening it alone in her room, she’s awed by the brilliant, intricate work. But the box also includes pieces she didn’t order, perfect replicas of items in the Brandt house. The details are so accurate and timely, she wonders if someone is watching her.
At Marin’s insistence, Johannes takes Nella to a guild dinner. She enjoys talking to her husband and hopes he will finally make her a real wife by consummating the marriage. She meets Agnes at the dinner, and the woman says she often visits Frans at his workplace. After they return home from the dinner, Nella touches Johannes sexually. He pushes her away and tells her to go to bed. Nella decides she, like Agnes, will show her husband she supports his work. She makes a surprise visit to his office the next day, only to see Jack, the deliveryman, giving oral sex to Johannes.
Nella hides out in her room for the next week, realizing she will never know romantic love or be a mother. She discovers the whole household knew about Johannes’ preference for men. Marin arranged the marriage to give him a suitable public persona. Marin tries to be kind and pleads with Nella to keep their secret. Nella considers returning to her mother.
As weeks pass, Nella learns more secrets about her new family. Frans asked for Marin’s hand in marriage years earlier, and Johannes said no. Nella finds a love note in Marin’s room and assumes Frans wrote it. Marin seems to have two personalities, one that is pious and another that is secretly bold and indulgent.
The miniaturist continues to send packages to Nella and often includes items she hasn’t requested. The artist creates detailed dolls representing the household members, as well as Jack, Agnes and Frans. Nella wonders if the miniaturist is mocking her by sending a tiny cradle. She is both frightened and intrigued by the miniaturist’s ability to see the intricacies of her present and future.
She writes letters to the artist and tries several times to enter the shop. While there is movement from within, no one will answer the door. A neighbor tells Nella that a woman lives alone in the building. Nella is surprised to learn the miniaturist is a female in a city where only men do business. She wonders if the artist could be the blond woman she’s seen staring at her on the street. Nella can never catch her in time to ask questions.
While Johannes is in Italy, Jack comes to the house and demands to see him. Otto tries to remove him and accidentally stabs Jack near the heart with the young man’s knife. Jack, enraged, stabs and kills Johannes’ beloved dog before threatening revenge and prosecution. Otto leaves town.
Johannes is devastated to hear about his dog. Even so, he runs back to Jack. Agnes and Frans go to the warehouse to check on their sugar. They catch Johannes and Jack in a compromising position. The Meermans pay Jack to say Johannes forcefully sodomized him, and Johannes is imprisoned. Sodomy is an offence punishable by drowning.
Marin and Nella seek buyers for the Meermans’ sugar, hoping to assuage the couple’s anger and cause them to revoke the charges against Johannes. Nella and Cornelia discover Marin is seven months pregnant. They assume she has been having an affair with Frans. Nella wishes the timing were different, so she could present the baby as hers. Maybe this would convince Johannes’ accusers he’d had a sexual relationship with his wife.
Marin says she will not give Nella her baby, but the sisters-in-law bond during this difficult period. Marin admits Johannes denied Frans’ request for her hand because Marin didn’t want to be married. Her brother was trying to give her freedom. Marin gives birth to a girl and dies shortly thereafter. Nella examines the dark completed child and realizes Otto was Marin’s lover.
Nella watches Johannes plead his case in public court. Jack, Agnes and Frans all testify to Johannes’ “sodomic attack,” and the court sentences Johannes to death. Nella sits in his cell in the hours before his death, as the two have developed a friendship and an understanding. She never tells him about Marin’s death or the baby.
The magistrates drown Johannes, and Otto arrives in time to comfort Nella. She takes him to the house to meet his daughter. She had hoped the miniaturist would offer insight throughout these dark events, but she learns the woman has left town. Nella knows she will never get the answers she sought, but she realizes the miniaturist was telling her to be the architect of her own destiny. She finds buyers for the sugar and makes plans to support Otto, Cornelia and the baby.