Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist hits many of the marks of books that immediately draw my attention: It’s centered in a long-ago time period (17th century) and a far away place (Amsterdam), has an intriguing and lovely cover, a protagonist coming of age, and a potential magical bent. I also had several friends rate it highly on Goodreads, so I definitely had high expectations. It’s perhaps for that reason that I think this fell flat for me. I didn’t dislike The Miniaturist, but I didn’t love it as much as I expected to.
Petronella Oortman (aka Nella), has just arrived in Amsterdam from her family’s crumbling estate in the country, newly married to wealthy tradesman Johannes Brandt. Inside her new home, Nella finds more questions than answers, impertinent servants, a cold sister-in-law, and general loneliness she never expected to feel as a young bride. One day, perhaps sensing her sadness, her husband brings home a wedding gift for her – a luxurious cabinet made to look like a tiny replica of their home. Nella decides to furnish it and seeks the assistance of a mysterious local miniaturist who may be more than what they seem.
There are many things to like about this book. Though this isn’t an outright mystery, there are some intriguing things going on in the Brandt house and beyond; this novel was hard to put down. Burton is a talented writer. Her descriptions of characters and places are quite beautiful. It seems like Burton is really interested in art and beauty. Nella is an interesting character; she has just barely become an adult and has had so many of her pre-conceived notions about marriage, life outside the country, and friendship turned upside down. She handles life in the Brandt home with a maturity one wouldn’t expect from someone her age. But then again, this is the 17th century, when many people married and died quite young, so perhaps it was quite normal for the time. Marin, Johannes’ stiff and uptight sister, holds many mysteries herself, from her illicit candied walnut snacks to her luxurious fur-lined petticoats. Many of the characters are unlikeable, like the Meermans, or the Pastor Pellicorne, but overall the story is populated with interesting people.
What left me a little cold is difficult to explain without spoiling some things about the story. Let’s just say that Nella discovers there is more to her husband’s disinterest than she realizes, and while that in and of itself isn’t an issue, it is sort of disappointing how it ends up becoming the focus of the novel. The jacket description promises a supernatural or magical mystery and what you get is something else entirely. As for the titular miniaturist, there were disappointments there as well. Again, it’s hard to go into detail on the reasons without spoiling the novel. I will only say that it’s a promise unfulfilled.
I think this book is worth reading and many would enjoy it even though it seems to suffer from some false advertising. I would have given it four stars but I docked a star for animal deaths.