I spent a few weeks in YA-land in November, so I read The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton to escape from that trap. Sometimes it is hard to leave YA-land.
“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 splendid new home is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant and leaves Nella alone with his sister, the fearsome Marin.
Nella’s life unexpectedly changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish it, she engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie ways.
Johannes’s gift helps Nella pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand and fear the escalating dangers around them. 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?” —Indiebound
Overall impression: I really liked this book. It was skillfully written, with beautiful scene-setting and elegant character-building. Nella is a complicated protagonist, and one cannot help but sympathize with her as she tells her story. She is a girl for whom options are incredibly limited, so she does what people expect her to do and marries a man of means. This action comes with a certain set of expectations for her, but she soon realizes that nothing in the Brandt house is as it seems, and nothing goes as expected. Though things are difficult for her at first, she finds a way to cope, thrive, and love her new home. The reader cannot help but admire her for her wherewithal and yet pity her for her limited circumstances.
17th Century Amsterdam is a fascinating and someone dangerous place. I read a lot of historical fiction set in Britain, so it was nice to get away from that and read something historical from the point of view of a different culture. Nella finds life in the city of canals very different from the country town in which she grew up, and as she explores its culture, streets, and customs, so do the readers.
The most intriguing element of Amsterdam in this story, however, is one mysterious house where no one ever answers the door to Nella’s knock, marked by a strange symbol. Sometimes curtains move in an upstairs window. Somehow, despite this, the miniature figurines she desires are delivered to her regardless of her putting in her order or not. The reader and Nella both wonder and eventually obsesses about the Miniaturist. Who is it? Does he have special powers? Can he see the future, or does he imbue his figurines with the ability to change as Nella’s story changes? Nella must face and seek to answer these questions at the same time that she must adjust to the very normal changes faced by women without many choices and the very real dangers faced by a prominent household in times of turmoil dominated by faith.
This is a book that is slightly under-hyped in my opinion and could get lost in the shuffle of all the over-hyped books being released every Tuesday. I highly recommend this unique and interesting novel for fans of historical fiction and magical realism.