Fans of historical fiction will be drawn to The Miniaturist, a fantastical tale from British debut novelist Jessie Burton that takes place in 17th-century Amsterdam. The story begins as 18-year-old Nella Oortman arrives at the home of her wealthy merchant husband, Johannes Brandt. Surprisingly, though, he is nowhere to be found. In his stead is his strictly religious sister, Marin; housemaid Cornelia; and his manservant, a former slave named Otto. Nella, a country girl, is forced to forge her way alone as head of the household.
Upon Johannes’ return, he doesn’t seem remotely interested in visiting the marriage bed. Marin is reluctant to hand over the reins to the household and continues to decide what foods they must eat (plain, cold herring) and how much money they are allowed to spend (practically none, in spite of their wealth). Still, Johannes surprises his new bride with an exorbitant gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home, based on an actual doll house owned by the real-life Petronella Oortman, which can be seen at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Disregarding Marin’s monetary anxiety, Nella commissions a miniaturist to furnish her doll house. The artisan’s work is exquisite, but soon the miniaturist begins creating objects that Nella never asked for and which the miniaturist could not have possibly seen: their whippets, the oil paintings in their bedchamber and finally, replicas of the members of the household. Nella demands that the miniaturist stop, but the exquisitely crafted items keep arriving, slowly morphing to reveal lethal secrets that hide in the Brandts’ walls.
The fantastical elements of the story are intriguing; however, the novel takes a disappointing turn with an unsatisfying resolution to the mystery of the miniaturist. Regardless, The Miniaturist excels in depicting Amsterdam and its wealthy upper class, and lovers of art and of Amsterdam will be drawn to Burton’s imaginative story, which flows as effortlessly as water down a canal.
RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Jessie Burton about The Miniaturist.
This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.