Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (2014)

Petronella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam in 1686, the new wife of well-established merchant Johannes Brandt. From the moment she arrives, the household seems strange. Johannes is not at home and his sister Marin seems to be in charge. She is cold towards Nella, and offers no explanations about the household or Johannes, who continues to be frequently absent. Employed by the household is Otto, the first black man Nella has ever known, and a maid, Cordelia, who is just as secretive and stand-offish as everyone else. On a rare visit home, Johannes presents Nella with a wedding gift - a cabinet-sized replica of their house. Nella employs a local miniaturist to furnish the home, but receives puzzling packages in return, some of which seem to mirror the most secret goings-on of the household.

I don't usually read brand new books by debut authors without first hearing a lot of good reviews (from friends as well as critics) but, well, this one had at me "17th century Amsterdam." I visited Amsterdam myself a few years ago and learned a little about the city's history, especially about the explosion in commerce and the arts during the Golden Age of the 17th century. Not only that, but I visited the Rijksmuseum where I saw the actual cabinet house belonging to the real Petronella Oortman. I knew that this novel centered around one of these elaborate doll houses, but it was only when I opened it to see a photo that I realized it was about a particular house owned by a particular young woman.

A modern view of Amsterdam canal houses.
Reading detailed descriptions of daily life in that time period was probably my favorite aspect of The Miniaturist. The very few reviews I heard referenced a slow start, but I found it very engrossing from the first page. Burton brought her setting to life and I could have gone on quite happily living Nella's life with her even without the intrigue.

In fact, I got just a bit impatient a little over halfway through because of the rate at which the action had ramped up. I found many of the plot points predictable, which isn't awful in itself, but it began to seem like maybe there was a bit too much going on. I also thought people who were so secretive and calculating would have been a little more careful about certain things which became their undoing. I wasn't convinced these characters would have acted the way they did.

Still, I liked getting to know all the characters and learning their secrets. What was considered scandalous then is nothing now, of course, but seeing the story slowly unfold was quite a delicious pleasure. There is a scene early in the book in which Nella sneaks into Marin's bedroom and sees many strange and foreign objects decorating the room, and realizes there is much more to Marin than her stern, black-clad exterior. She doesn't know what, but she becomes very intrigued and so did I. The whole book was like that to me - everything I read about just made me want more.

At the end is a glossary, followed by salary comparisons for that period, and sample household costs. This are unusual additions and would have been great to know about before I finished the book. I looked for an author's note too, since Nella was a real person, but the only mention is in the acknowledgements where Burton says Nella's biography is completely fiction. She was married to a wealthy merchant named Johannes Brandt, but it doesn't appear there's much more information available about her.

The cover art is lovely, though the first version I saw was the one discussed by the designer in this article, which I liked even more. Both versions capture the atmosphere of mystery that pervades the novel and makes it such an engrossing read. Despite its length, I found The Miniaturist so gripping I plowed through it in a long weekend.

4 comments:

Icy Daylight said...

That other cover design is fantastic too. Some books aren't lucky enough to get one good cover, and this one has two great ones!

Elizabeth B said...

Nice, honest review. I like that you added a photo of Amsterdam today. I try to illustrate my reviews a little also. I am iffy on this book, although it's still on my TBR. I'm waiting to read more reviews.

Elizabeth B said...

I came back to tell you that another HF that takes place in Amsterdam is The Coffee Trader by David Liss. It's about the coffee trade coming to Europe and has a lot of vivid scenes of daily life in the 1650s.

3goodrats said...

I hadn't heard of The Coffee Trader - thank you for suggesting it!