This gothic-tinged historical opens in 1687 with a mysterious woman secretly observing a funeral. Her identity is the first of many compelling mysteries that propels the reader through The Miniaturist. The story then backshifts a few months to 1686, when young Petronella (Nella) Oortman Brandt arrives, for the first time, at the doorstep of her new husband’s Amsterdam home. He isn’t present, and she is greeted by Marin, his chilly, imperious sister and their servants. When Nella’s merchant husband, Johannes, finally arrives, he treats Nella with an almost brotherly respect, eventually even affection, but with no trace of the passion for which Nella has braced herself. Layers of chiaroscuro mystery obscure Nella’s—and the reader’s—understanding of her new life and role in her new household. Why doesn’t Johannes consummate his marriage? What is Marin’s past and who is she really? What is the Brandt family’s connection to Johannes’s associate Frans Meersman and his wife Agnes?
The next mystery is the grand arrival of Nella’s wedding gift from Johannes. It is a miniature house, an exact replica of their own home in dollhouse proportion. Nella feels belittled. But she is fascinated by the precision of the replica, and commissions a miniaturist to furnish the house. When her pieces arrive, she is surprised to receive several unrequested items: a baby’s cradle, and miniatures of Johannes’s two dogs, rendered in detail that could only come from close, keen observation. Who is this strange craftsman to know such detail, and to make such presumption as to include a cradle? Did the miniaturist know how that item would sting Nella, who is receiving clear messages from Johannes’s avuncular behavior? Nella is astounded to then receive an uncommissioned package from the miniaturist, containing an impossibly realistic set of figures: herself, Marin, Johannes, the servants, and the Meersmans. Her discomfort grows, but she’s unable to reach the miniaturist for an explanation. As Nella’s miniatures begin to take on peculiar characteristics and as dangerous missteps and misfortunes befall the Brandts, dread over their fates grows, and an inevitable question rears: whose funeral is described in the opening epigraph?
I loved how well Burton evokes 17th century Amsterdam— its architecture and furnishings and fashions as well as its political and religious climate, its racism, sexism, and intolerance. Nella is a compelling heroine whose growing maturity through the course of the story is deftly portrayed . I didn’t always like Nella, but by midway through the book she had earned my respect; by the end my unreserved admiration.
As much as I loved Nella’s miniature house—the description of it as well as its symbolic power in the story—and the mounting suspense over the identity of the miniaturist, in the end, the miniaturist’s presence and role didn’t gel for me. Still, many parts of the novel kept me enthralled, and there is much to enjoy in this suspenseful, engrossing, historically authentic novel. Very highly recommended for historical fiction readers.