On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office-leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.
But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist-an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .
Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand-and fear-the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?
Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.” ~Goodreads
The Miniaturist (August 2014) is Jessie Burton’s debut novel and the first review post for the new year. I just finished it at the tail end of 2014 but still want to share it with readers who enjoy storytelling that is polished, suspenseful and covers many topics that would stir up juicy debates in a book club.
This book had me captivated from the very first page. I couldn’t put it down and couldn’t wait to get back to it. I’m not one to rely too heavily on starred reviews but I was surely baffled by the low ratings and readers claiming it went on their “DNF” list. Were we reading the same book?
I must admit, I did read this novel as well as listen to it via digital audio through my library, for I had some long drives over the holiday and didn’t want to miss ample reading time. I wonder if that made a difference, because the storytelling by Davina Porter was electrifying. It made me rethink my stance on audio books entirely. At least give them another chance this year.
From the first page you can feel Nella’s trepidation mixed with some excitement for she was briefly introduced to her husband Johannes on their wedding day and then some four months later she is on his doorstep. It reminded me at times of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier with that eerie feeling that something is going on within the house. Marin’s coldness like that of Mrs. Danvers. The house and the people who live there are not what she expected.
“In daylight, it now seems ridiculous, but the rules of this house are written in water. I must either sink or swim, Nella thinks.”
And so Nella swims. She puts the hurt feelings of being completely ignored by her husband aside and gets on with being a woman in the 17th century. She cannot possibly be the woman of the house with sister-in-law Marin calling all the shots, she has no real friends or activities to distract her so the cabinet and the miniaturist become her obsession. But Nella is not just picking out pieces and decorating her cabinet as she wishes, the miniaturist sends her pieces she doesn’t ask for that are spot on replicas along with eerie messages that are either warnings or what? Here is where the mystery, fantasy and suspense really take over the story.
As Nella tries to piece together who this mysterious miniaturist is, she is slowly discovering deep secrets within the Brandt household. When the mystery of Johannes is revealed (no spoilers) I was not shocked. Not because I saw it coming but the way that Burton developed that storyline with Nella’s reaction and then understanding was character development at its finest. Nella had to grow up considerably, put aside the expected image of what it meant to be a wife, partner, adult and woman-of-the-house and make her own journey.
“Love has shifted its shape; a beam of sun that sometimes clouds the heart. It seems that Marin viewed marriage as a ceding of something, whereas so many women-including my own mother, Nella realizes-see it as the only possible form of influence a woman can have. Marriage is supposed to harness love, to increase a woman’s power, Nella supposes. But does it? Marin believed herself to be more powerful without it. Love has been left unharnessed, and indeed extraordinary things have happened…But also choice and the molding of one’s own fate.”
This book ticked all the boxes for me. Historical Fiction, suspense, mystery, beautiful storytelling, strong character development and research on the part of Burton that was fascinating. But many books and authors can achieve that. What set it apart from the rest was honing in on the human element so powerfully. The topics that Burton tackles in the 17th century are not too different from what they are today: feminism, a woman’s role, acceptance, understanding, love, friendship, prejudices, inequalities and the human spirit. I just hope more people pick up this book and give it a chance. And those who placed it on their DNF list, revisit it again at some time.