The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Publication Date: August 26, 2014 (US publication)
Length: 416 pages
Source: My own copy
Jessie Burton’s much hyped debut novel, The Miniaturist, takes readers to late 17th century Amsterdam, a contradictory and sometimes dangerous world. At the time, Dutch traders ruled the seas. Merchants lived in opulence in the Dutch Republic’s capital, and yet an austere and punishing religion governed daily life.
The Story: The Miniaturist begins as eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam from the countryside, leaving behind a noble family that has fallen on hard times. She is newly wed to a rich, older merchant named Johannes Brandt, and although her marriage ceremony was hasty and none-too-auspicious, Nella hopes to embark on a life of happy matrimony and motherhood.
Instead, nothing is as Nella expects in her new home. Her husband’s brusque sister Marin rules the roost with an iron fist, and has no intention of ceding control of the household to her naïve sister-in-law. Even the servants seem to view Nella as a provincial nobody. Most confusing of all to Nella, Johannes does not attempt to consummate the marriage. Instead he presents her with an extravagant but perplexing wedding gift—a doll-sized replica of the house.
Lonely Nella, with little else to occupy her, turns to a craftsman to fill the doll-house with mini pieces of furniture and figures. The mysterious miniaturist, however, seems to have a disturbing and prophetic knowledge of the members of the Brandt household. As Nella grows increasingly obsessed with the miniaturist’s creations and cryptic messages, dangerous secrets in the Brandt household are revealed. Nella finds that she must quickly shed her innocence in order to protect her future and her strange new family from the threats that lurk all around them.
My Thoughts: The Miniaturist, first of all, is a very readable novel. I found myself turning the pages quickly, wanting to know the secrets of the Brandt household and how Nella’s situation would resolve. Burton ably recreates the world of Amsterdam in 1686, and I drank in all the rich details of a merchant family’s life. Burton does a good job of highlighting the limited roles a woman could have in this repressive time and place. Nella’s miniature house represents the cloistered, prison-like sphere acceptable for a woman; Nella must break out of this doll-house to become a person in her own right.
But while there is much I appreciated in The Miniaturist, I felt the novel didn’t fully live up to its promise. The mysteries of the miniaturist are never satisfactorily resolved. Could the miniaturist manipulate the Brandts like puppets; if so, why? Could the miniaturist predict the future? Did the miniaturist have supernatural powers? These questions are left unanswered, which seems a curious cop-out. I would have preferred a novel focusing on the family drama alone—of which there was plenty—without all the build-up about the miniaturist’s powers, especially since, in the end, this doesn’t seem to lead anywhere.
I must say as well that the plot, at times, felt forced—there is just a little too much happening all at once to the same family. Nella, as a character, left me unconvinced; she makes an enormous leap from an innocent, rural-bred girl to a surprisingly modern and proto-feminist woman. As a reader, I didn’t feel like Burton showed that transformation enough for me to accept it. The character of Otto, Johannes’s black servant, is not nearly developed enough, given his key part in the plot.
I would rate The Miniaturist about a 3 out of 5 stars. For me, it was a solid read, but not quite as good as I expected. I do think Jessie Burton shows a great deal of talent in her debut, and I would certainly read her next novel.