Jessie Burton was an actress before she wrote THE MINIATURIST, her first novel. It is a huge hit in the UK and many other places around the world. Somewhere along the way, Burton decided to act like an author, and thus comes her sleight-of-hand book about 17th-century Amsterdam and the way the strictures of this society affected a teenage bride with big ideals.
There is no intimacy in the wedding of Nella Oortman and Johannes Brandt; instead, his wedding gift is a cabinet house, a perfect tiny replica of the home in which she has been brought to live. It is a large and expensive house, filled with fine things and seemingly put together with the secrets that are hidden around every corner. Nella’s only chore in this lonely new life is to find someone who can give this tiny house its lifeblood at Johannes’s expense. He gives her the go-ahead to hire a miniaturist who will furnish the little home with all the accoutrements befitting its stature.
"THE MINIATURIST will thrill students of other novels that take place during this period in Amsterdam, like GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING.... [I]t easily could become a smash hit movie, and provocative secrets will make it a book club discussion starter for some time to come."
Nella’s parakeet Peebo, her only friend to make the journey with her to this new quiet life, is forced to live in the basement kitchen with the help, thanks to the orders of the master’s angry sister, Marin. In this world of Calvinist burgomasters, Amsterdam’s citizens are kept from enjoying sugar except in secret, and can be prosecuted for owning any type of doll --- replicas of human form being a criminal matter as well. Nella must make sure that no one is aware of the house, a situation that Marin finds horrifying. Johannes is one strange dude, and things are only going to get stranger from here.
The miniaturist seems to know the members of the Brandt household very well. The tiny pieces that arrive to populate the house are very prescient; somehow they come in time to reveal little by little the secrets that are threatening to destroy the outward composure of this important family. Family secrets? Johannes and Marin are trying to keep Nella from any ensuing revelations, but they come, one after another. Nella handles them better and better as she matures throughout the story.
Nella is a fierce heroine, perhaps a little too fierce for her time period. In fact, she acts so modern that you may forget where she is supposed to be living and under what restrictions she is supposed to exist. THE MINIATURIST is good at setting up her environment; in fact, it is SO well wrought that we often wonder how Nella gets to do things like wander around town on her own. For a small-town girl thrown into a loveless marriage in a large urban setting, she manages quite better for herself than the reader would imagine at first.
Burton knows how to assemble a story, but somewhere along the way, she put the emotional lives of the characters to the side to concentrate on the bigger mysteries of the book. The strange quality of the secrets involved in the household’s mysteries are the engine that move the story along. You keep reading to find out what is going to come next and what it could mean. However, I fear that the reader may end up caring more about the meaning of life in the little house than about life in the big house. The little house and its reflection of the goings-on in the real world are far more entrancing.
THE MINIATURIST will thrill students of other novels that take place during this period in Amsterdam, like GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING. Long on plot and short on emotion, it easily could become a smash hit movie, and provocative secrets will make it a book club discussion starter for some time to come.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on September 24, 2014