The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Published: July 2014
Genre: historical fiction
On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office–leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.
But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .
Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand–and fear–the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?
Nella arrives in Amsterdam eager to begin her new life as a wife to Johannes Brandt, an incredibly successful merchant and member of the VOC. While he seems kind, he’s rarely home and hardly notices her presence. Nella is left with her harsh and hypocritical sister-in-law, Marin, and the two unusual servants. Johannes knows Nella is struggling in her new role away from home, and presents her with a cabinet house in the exact replica of their home. Nella seeks out a miniaturist to fill this home, but what the miniaturist delivers is eerie, unexpected, and seems to send warnings to Nella of what’s to come.
The synopsis suggests there’s a suspenseful mystery here (who is the miniaturist, and how does he/she seem to know what’s going on in the Brandt household?), and while there is an element of that, the story is more about morality and social justice, and a young woman’s bildungsroman in a time when few had roles outside of being a wife and mother. Amsterdam was the capital of commerce, and though the Bible is toted about as law, few people seem to follow its rules: be poor, give often, do not be proud, do not worship idols. But in a place that thrives on its riches from business and trade, it is difficult to be that pious Christian the reverend urges his flock, come fire or damnation.
The Brandt household alone is a contradiction to society. We as readers are Nella, naive to the city and an observer in the family dynamics. We have Johannes, who is a good man, a great businessman, and a “poor” husband (rarely home and attending to his wife). There’s Marin, his pious sister who is as wicked sharp and she is contradictory, claiming sweets are poor for the soul yet hiding away candies in her small room. Otto, Johannes right-hand man and servant, a free black man in a city only familiar with slaves. Cornelia, at first judgmental and somewhat off-putting, but genuinely sweet and open, a confidant for Nella. Who are these people and what are their secrets? The secrets are…devastating for the family, and in turn alter the city’s business as well as the views of religion and morality.
Though the last 50 pages were a bit lackluster (all the secrets are out), it still fell into the realm of a soap opera: you just can’t stop reading and having everything confirmed! The novel is entertaining, and is full of book club-worthy discussion topics, especially sexuality, gender roles, racism, marriage, and religion. I’d go into it here but then I really would spoil the novel…
The Miniaturist was far more accessible of a read than I expected, and not as magical as I thought it would be. It was certainly suspenseful, sometimes downright creepy, but for a slow burn of a novel it was a very compelling read.
This qualifies as book 3 of 12 in the Rock My TBR challenge.