The Premise: in 1686, 18 year old Nella is sent to Amsterdam to live with the new husband she barely knows, a wealthy but mysterious merchant with a frosty sister and no apparent idea how to treat a wife. How suspicious. As evidence of this inability to communicate with a grown woman, Johannes buys his young (but not preschool) wife what is essentially a massive dolls house, for which she has to buy furniture from a mysterious miniaturist. There are also mysterious servants and spotty people, in case you’re wondering.
Thoughts: hurray for me; I’ve read another of the books I’ve neglected for ages and felt bad about. Also hurray; I really enjoyed it. It’s a really slow-burning story, with Nella’s initial confusion about the odd treatment that greets her at her husband’s house giving way to a succession of WTF moments, and I was pleasingly surprised by some of them (although at least one of them was, I thought, glaringly obvious). Burton’s writing is beautifully suited to the historical setting; I was less convinced by her more recent novel, The Muse, but I knew little enough about this period of history and the Netherlands to not feel the need to pick holes in this one. After a slowish start, the final act of The Miniaturist is packed with action, ensuring that my attention stayed with the story throughout.
The characterisation in The Miniaturist is really strong; I loved Nella’s aloof sister-in-law, with her snooty manners and collection of skulls. Cornelia and Otto are the servants who complete the household, and I particularly liked Cornelia too; I don’t know how realistic the representation of servants being besties with their masters is, but it was enjoyable to read nonetheless. The depiction of Amsterdam, with its guilds and trade and strict rules (no gingerbread men? Seriously?) was also really enthralling.
Here’s my problem with The Miniaturist: the miniaturist. Nella pushes requests for tiny furniture under the door, with the packages being delivered by a third party, and both Nella’s and my interest in who this character was became almost unbearable. However, despite the title of the book suggesting that the miniaturist is really important, there’s no satisfying explanation. How does she know so much about Nella’s new household, in order to create pieces that preempt the secrets about to be revealed? Why does she bother? And who the bloody hell is she? Well, I was slightly distracted by my daughter watching Tinkerbell in the background, but I didn’t see any answers in the book, and this annoyed me a bit. You could take out all the bits about teeny cradles and loaves of sugar and the story would be exactly the same.
In Conclusion: I found this to be an easy and engaging read, with intriguing characters, an interesting historical setting and a twisty-turny story that kept my attention. I was disappointed not to get some proper resolution to the whole miniaturist situation, but it’s a really enjoyable book regardless.