book review: The Miniaturist


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Publisher: ECCO (August 2014). Historical fiction. Hardcover. 416 pages.

Lots of buzz surrounding this novel: it was a BEA Book Buzz selection; an Indie Next Pick; A LibraryReads selection and a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick. Rights sold to 30 countries. Great work marketing this one. A gorgeous cover. A romantic, cool setting – 17th century Amsterdam. An intriguing concept—a young wife, shuttled in from the countryside to marry her 20-years-older merchant husband—begins commissioning a miniaturist to fill a cabinet-sized replica of her home her husband gave her as a wedding present.

The miniaturist designs items that Nella never requested and seem to predict a doomed future. It started to be creepy in a good way. Nella received items that she barely knew existed in the expansive home she inhabited. Then she received dolls depicting everyone in the household including her sister-in-law, the help and most tellingly her husband’s lover. A few months before Nella happened in on Johannes in flagrante delicto with his younger lover and quickly realized why the 38-year-old man decided to marry her. She felt betrayed and stuck.

“Someone has peered into Nella’s life and thrown her off-center. If these items aren’t sent in error, then the cradle is a mockery of her unvisited marriage bed and what’s beginning to feel like an eternal virginity. What sort of person would dare such impertinence? The dogs, so particular; the chairs; so exact; the cradle, so suggestive—it’s as though the miniaturist has a perfect, private view.”

Unfortunately there’s not enough about the miniaturist despite the novel’s title. I’d expected it all to be about that. I expected details about how a miniaturist designs and works. About the art of creating miniatures. Author Jessie Burton visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and saw Petronella Oortman’s elaborate dolls’ house filled with Chinese porcelain, oak, Italian marble, glass, oil paintings and tapestries. That’s what I wanted to know about. That’s the world I wanted this novel to allow me to enter.

When 18-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to start her life as wife to renowned trader and merchant Johannes Brandt she doesn’t find the welcome or comforts she’d expected. She’s lonely and isolated. Her husband pays little attention to her. Sister-in-law Marin remains strict and secretive. Nella questions her decision to leave her family and small village yet had few options. How predictable and mundane for Marin to be wary of the young Nella and overly protective of her brother. Marin never married and she and her brother live together quite comfortably. Marin controls the household and now there’s this young woman setting foot in her territory.

“In Assendelft, there may have only been one town square, but at least the people sitting in it would listen to her. Here she is a puppet, a vessel for others to pour their speech. And it is not a man she has married, but a world.”

Of course there should be tension. Everything’s rather dark in this novel which is fine and has its place it just does not always work. Nella possesses little emotion for anything even her beloved parakeet she brought with her. There’s nothing to make the reader feel she truly cares for the bird. What drives Nella? Why is she doing what she’s doing? Is she really outraged by her husband’s behaviors or is she just a young woman who cannot yet understand? At that time she’s living in quite a religious society but she’s not a religious woman. Her sister-in-law’s the one who seems to be living her life based on religious doctrine. It’s infuriating because although Nella’s gained power in legal and societal terms by marrying a wealthy man respected in the community she allows her sister-in-law to continue to make the rules and force her to behave in ways that make Nella feel uncomfortable. Until many secrets reveal themselves and Nella and Marin must collaborate does Nella begin to gain her own voice and strength of character. By then it’s just too late to care.

The Miniaturist is a moralistic play on betrayal and survival and how one young woman conquers everything to come out intact on the other side. Her husband’s tried for sodomy. I skimmed many pages about his incarceration and trial. Johannes is a bore. There’s nothing striking about this character and that’s unfortunate. Her sister-in-law is pregnant with the black servant’s child and ends up committing suicide. While there’s some lovely writing and descriptions at parts, it lacks emotion, tension and intrigue. At the end I was left wanting more. The novel seems unfinished and it’s more than 400 pages.

RATING: ***/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

purchase at Amazon: The Miniaturist: A Novel

Jessie Burton will be at Harvard Book Store on Thursday, September 11 at 7pm.

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