Jessie Burton returns to the world of her atmospheric novel The Miniaturist with a sequel, The House of Fortune, set in 1705 Amsterdam.
First, a little about The Miniaturist, which introduces readers to Nella Brandt when she’s 18 years old. Recently married to a trader named Johannes, Nella is a country girl who feels out of place in Amsterdam, a powerful international trade center with a gossipy, moralistic core. Nella finds Johannes and the rest of her new family—sister-in-law Marin, servant Otto and cook Cornelia—to be confusing and distant. As a distraction, Johannes gives Nella a cabinet house, a miniature version of their home, which she furnishes by ordering from a miniaturist. The miniaturist, in turn, conveys that she knows secrets about Nella’s new family, a menacing development.
The House of Fortune picks up the story nearly two decades later, opening on the 18th birthday of Thea, daughter of Otto and Marin, who died in childbirth. By now, Thea’s aunt, Nella, is a longtime widow, and Otto is the head of the household. Thea is obsessed with the theater, spending as much time as she can at the city’s playhouse with her actor friend Rebecca and new love, Walter, a set painter.
But the Brandt household is in trouble: Otto has lost his job in the Dutch East India Company—as a Black man, he was never allowed to rise to a decent position—and Nella must sell off the house’s paintings and furniture to pay expenses. Nella believes the family’s best hope is for Thea to marry a man with a fortune, but as a biracial young woman in white merchant-class Amsterdam, Thea’s marriage prospects are uncertain. Rounding out the cast are botanist Caspar Witsen, socialite Clara Sarragon and the mysterious miniaturist, who once again watches the Brandt family, this time focusing on Thea.
The story alternates between Nella’s and Thea’s perspectives. Nella worries about Thea’s future while considering her own past, particularly when she left home for the city. Thea schemes to follow Walter wherever he may be heading next, but she also yearns to understand the broodings of her secretive father and aunt, and their reasons for never talking about Marin or Johannes.
Throughout The House of Fortune, Burton beautifully evokes golden-age Amsterdam. It’s as though she has seamlessly incorporated aspects of memorable Dutch still lifes, portraits and landscape paintings into the narrative. If The House of Fortune doesn’t feature quite the same level of sinister gothic atmosphere and suspenseful plotting as The Miniaturist, it’s still a satisfying family drama.