Updated: Jan 27, 2019
It has taken me a while to process how I feel about the book The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. It’s true that work and a very bad cold got in the way, however I really needed the time to sit and think about this book. Even as I’m writing these words at this moment, I’m still not sure I’m going to do it justice. I don’t even know where to start so I guess I’ll go right to the beginning.
When I bought the book on my Kindle, what caught my attention wasn’t the description of the story, it was the cover. The dress of the woman tells me it is set in a time period I may enjoy, and if you’re a regular reader, you’re aware that anything from the 16th or 17th centuries is going to pique my interest.
The story is set in 1686 in Amsterdam. From what we know of the city today, it’s progressive, it’s liberal, and it’s a bit of a haven for those who prefer to walk a tad on the wild side. But in its financial peak of the 17th century, Amsterdam was as puritanical as any city of that day and age which is a major theme in almost every situation the characters encounter.
The story is about a young woman Petronella (Nella) who is sent to Amsterdam from a very small town to live with a new husband she barely knows. When she arrives she is confronted not with her husband, Johannes, but his sister Marin who is cold and intimidating. Also living in this household are two servants, Otto and Cornelia. Otto is the first black man Nella has ever seen and as we learn, the only black man in Amsterdam at that time. Nella struggles to find her place in this home with her most of the time absent husband, an overbearing sister-in-law, and two servants who “dare” speak to her as equals.
Sensing his wife's frustration, Johannes buys Nella a wedding gift, the likes of which she has never seen. It is a doll-house, but not just any doll-house as it is an eerily accurate reproduction of the home in which they live. Marin, who seems to have an unusual grasp on the household funds for a woman, is upset Johannes has spent so much money on a frivolous gift; however Nella immediately sets out to furnish her new home by commissioning a local Miniaturist to create items. The things she commissions are in a sense ‘revenge’ for not being able to control her own household because Marin seems unable and unwilling to let go of the reigns to the new lady of the house. Nella decides to furnish her miniature home with all of the things Marin will not let her have, or touch, in her real home.
What Nella soon realizes is that she may have made a mistake by contacting the Miniaturist. Pieces begin to arrive that she has not ordered, and they are eerie reproductions of items, and people, within the home. The detail of these tiny items could only be made by someone with absolute knowledge of the home and its inhabitants, but even stranger, they seem to be attuned to what is currently happening in the house and some even seem to predict the future.
For a debut novel, the writing is almost poetic and philosophical. I found myself high-lighting sections that were written so beautifully, or gave me pause and caused me to read them over and over. One such example is Nella trying to make sense of her new surroundings:
“…that her husband has still not come home, that the minutes are ticking by. How odd it is, she thinks, that some hours feel like days, and others fly too fast. It is freezing cold outside the window, and she feels the numbing sensation in her toes, imagining her flesh made inert like that man found hacked beneath the ice. At least her breath is misting. I’m still alive, she thinks.”
Believe me when I say this novel is not just about a strange little house and an elusive Miniaturist that seems to have insight into this home. The story takes twists and turns I wasn’t expecting in almost every chapter and it is also oddly comparable to issues we are seeing in our own society right now. There hasn’t been one day that has gone by I haven’t thought about this book or its characters. I want to know more. I want to know what they’re doing right now.
I learned after reading it that this book has been the fastest selling debut novel since Fifty Shades of Grey and I'm not surprised. While the description of the book is compelling, I can't help but think it has been word of mouth responsible for its popularity. Have you read it? Will you read it? Let me know.