The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Published by Ecco ISBN 9780062306845
Trade paperback, $16.99, 416 pages
A great historical novel can transport you to a completely different time and place, a place you are unfamiliar with. Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist does just that. Set in 1686 Amsterdam, we meet young Petronella Oortman, who has just arrived at the home of her new husband, wealthy, influential merchant Johannes Brandt.
Brandt is not there to greet his bride, but his sister, cold and imperious Marin is, along with the young maid/cook Cornelia, and Otto, the dark-skinned manservant to Johannes. Petronella is unhappy to find that her husband is gone and his return is unknown.
When Johannes does show up, he shows no interest in his new bride. Nella is confused, but to appease his young wife, he gifts her with an exact replica miniature of her new home. He tells Petronella that she may order furnishings from the miniaturist to fill her new replica home.
Johannes and Marin argue about Johannes' business. He has agreed to sell a large quantity of sugar for Frans and Agnes Meerman, a married couple with whom Marin and Johannes have a complicated relationship. The book is told through Nella's eyes, so we find out the history of this relationship as she does.
When a package arrives from the miniaturist, it contains the items Nella ordered, along with a note that reads EVERY WOMAN IS THE ARCHITECT OF HER OWN FORTUNE. Nella is puzzled by this, and by the fact that there are more items than she ordered in the package. Exact replicas of two chairs, with the same carvings on them as the ones in the salon, along with a cradle, and replicas of Johannes two beloved dogs are also inside.
Nella is shocked by how the miniaturist would know what the chair and dogs look like, having never been to her home, and what the cradle means. She sets out to find the miniaturist for an explanation, but is unsuccessful. And then more packages with cryptic notes continue to arrive.
A scandal befalls Johannes and he is imprisoned. When Otto disappears after an altercation with a man who works for Johannes, that leaves only the women to carry on. Marin and Nella must pull together and find a way to sell the Meerman's sugar to get money to save Johannes.
I loved watching Nella grow in strength. She began the story a young, naive woman, who knew little of the ways of life in Amsterdam, yet like the famous Eleanor Roosevelt saying- "Women are like teabags- you never know their strength until they are in hot water"- she rises to the occasion when it becomes necessary.
We learn so much about the trading business, life in Amsterdam, the food they ate, how the people lived, their prejudices and laws, I found it so fascinating, even though I would have said before I read this book that I wasn't particularly interested in this time period.
The Miniaturist is a book that kept me reading on the treadmill just a little bit longer each time I read it, unwilling to put it down. There are strong female characters, a bit of the supernatural in regards to how the miniaturist knew what she did about the family, and a suspenseful plot that propelled the reader to continue on.
Burton shares her research at the end of the book, which was extensive, and she includes a photo of the actual miniature house that belonged to the real Petronella Oortman that resides in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. You can bet I will be looking for information on the real Petronella Oortman.
The Miniaturist will definitely be on my list of Most Compelling Reads of 2014- it's brilliant and breathtaking, and the fact that Jessie Burton is a debut author is astonishing.
rating 5 of 5
Jesse Burton's website is here.