My rating: 5 stars
How does the saying go? Never judge a book by its cover. I can’t say I truly judged the worth of The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton’s debut novel, by its cover. However, I definitely bought it because I fell in love with its blue colour tones and the illustrations used to transform the cover into a fragment of a cabinet house. I don’t remember even paying any attention to the blurb to know if I was really interested in the story before buying it. So, the book quietly sat on my bookshelves during a few months until I decided to pick it up. When I finally did so, I was pleasantly surprised!
The year is 1686. Petronella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to live with her husband, wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt, whom she barely knows. As a wedding gift, he offers her a cabinet-sized replica of their home, a present 18-year-old Nella finds hard to accept, as she is not a girl anymore. To add to this, her husband doesn’t spend much time with her, neither during the day nor the night, and she has to learn how to fit in with a household full of secrets, where austere and unlikeable Marin, Johannes’s sister, reigns.
Nella’s life becomes a puzzle full of missing pieces that she has to find. She commissions a miniaturist to furnish her cabinet house, who then sends her miniatures she has never asked for and that are replicas of things and persons from her daily life, although they have never met. And her husband and sister-in-law have secrets she tries to uncover by listening behind doors, entering into rooms and asking questions of Otto, Johannes’s manservant, and Cornelia, the house maid whom she befriends.
After just two or three chapters, I was completely invested in both the story and the characters. The story is told from Nella’s point of view and her questions became my questions. Like her, I developed a fascination with Johannes, although (or because) he is away for long periods of time travelling and working. During the moments they share, however, we can see that he really makes an effort for her to be happy and, in a certain way, cares for her.
As the story progresses and Nella starts discovering what is happening around her, the characters become even more human and their actions come to be more understandable. This is also when The Miniaturist becomes a page-turner. Although the clues were there, I was really surprised at many of the revelations and events taking place, which I won’t be spoiling, as it would take away part of the enjoyment of reading the book.
However, The Miniaturist has more to offer than mysteries that need solving. I found the writing style to be beautiful, as the words seem to have been chosen with great precision. Suddenly, I wasn’t in my room anymore, but walking with Nella along the Amsterdam’s canals, or I could see all the scenes performed in front of my eyes, thanks to the suggestive descriptions, such as:
“The Guild of Silversmiths’ feast chamber is large and full of people, whose faces blend into a blur of eyes and mouths and feathers bouncing off the brims of hats”.
The Miniaturist is also a historically well-researched book which conveys the contradictions that existed in the Amsterdam of the time – a Calvinist puritan society, with severe moral standards, which deemed pleasurable things unnecessary, but that grew richer by trading such things. Marin encompasses well this conflict, as she criticises Nella’s love of marzipan, as sugar “makes people’s souls sick”, but harasses her brother to sell it.
After finishing the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So, I read some reviews online to know what other people thought of it. I found two main criticisms which I don’t think diminish the high quality of the book: the characters are too contemporary and not everything is revealed about the miniaturist. The characters face situations which may be considered “modern”, but that in reality have been happening since… well, probably ever. Does Nella deal with said situation like a 21st century woman would? I believe that she reacts as a kind and compassionate human being, regardless of time period.
In relation to the miniaturist, it is true that not everything is completely revealed. But did it have to be? I don’t think so. For me, the story being told, despite the title, is not truly focused on the miniaturist. It is about how people become miniatures of themselves in a world that oppresses them and where they are supposed to act in a certain way which is contrary to their feelings. In this regard, the blurb may be a bit misleading, as it seems to focus mainly on the role of the miniaturist. The most relevant part featured in the blurb for me, though, is: “she realises the escalating dangers they face”. These dangers don’t truly come from the miniaturist, but from the seventeenth-century type of society the characters live in.
The Miniaturist is a perfect mix of historical fiction and magical realism that will stay with you for a long time after you have finished reading it.