Monday, May 26, 2014

The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton. Harper Collins 2014

In 1686 eighteen year old Petronella Oortman comes to live in Amsterdam with her new husband, Johannes Brandt, who she has barely met and with whom she has not yet shared a bed. She is not met by her husband; the household is not really welcoming. Brandt’s sister, Marin, is cold and critical. The maid, Cornelia, and Brandt’s man servant, Otto- a man of color, which is very unusual in Amsterdam at the time- tend to Nella’s needs but must get on with their work. She is basically sent to her room (the best of the bedrooms), without even her parakeet for company, and left to spend the night alone.

Brandt, when they finally meet at breakfast, turns out to be good-natured and friendly, but not in the way that Nella expects a husband to act to his wife. A merchant, he is away much of the time, and he shows no interest in sharing Nella’s bed when he is home. As a wedding present, he gives her a miniature version of the house they live in. Nella at first takes this as a slap in the face: she feels Brandt, at 39, looks at her eighteen year old self as a child. Certainly, she has nothing to do in Brandt’s home; Marin runs the house and treats Nella as a nuisance. But Brandt is not insulting Nella; such miniature houses are an accepted hobby in Amsterdam at the time.

To furnish the diminutive dwelling, Nella finds an ad for a miniaturist in the era’s version of the Yellow Pages and takes a letter to their address, requesting them to make some items for her. With no one home when she visits, she shoves the letter under the door and leaves. To her surprise, the items she requested arrive quickly- along with some pieces she did not request. These pieces show that the miniaturist has intimate knowledge of the Brandt household, which of course Nella finds very upsetting and even menacing.

Everyone in this household has secrets, very big secrets. Secrets that can destroy the person. And Johannes Brandt- and his money- are not entirely well loved. Greed, jealousy and religion are all factors in Amsterdam life. Nella unravels secret after secret, and, as she does, the miniaturist continues to give proof that they know what is going on in the house.

This is a fascinating book. Although it is a fast and absorbing read, it will pay to either read it slowly or reread; going back through it I kept finding foreshadowings that I had missed the first time. There are some details that are not period (or place) appropriate but I found them tolerable. Most of the characters have depth and human failings as well as nobility. We get to watch Nella grow and mature in a short period of time. My only problem with the book is that the miniaturist is never adequately explained; how did this person know the things they did? Is this the sole piece of magic in the book, or is there a more commonplace explanation? We are never to know. 

I received this book from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a fair review. The above is an affiliate link; if you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. Neither of these things influenced my review. 

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