Fiction, Historical

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Given that the BBC is doing a miniseries of The Miniaturist for the holidays, I thought it a pertinent review for today! A few weeks ago, I admitted to owning a Kindle. For Christmas a few years ago, my father gave me a Kindle – yes, I finally gave in and accepted that some of my favorite authors might only publish eBooks (thank you Viv Daniels/Diana Peterfreund…) and if I wanted to read them, I’d have to suffer through reading them on my laptop or phone (which is far too bright for night reading) so I gave in – I now own an eReader and The Miniaturist is my first electronically read novel. It’s an odd sensation.

Synopsis

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office – leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s life changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist – an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways…

Johannes’s gift helps Nella pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand – and fear – the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation… or the architect of their destruction?

Review

At first, I was very excited about The Miniaturist. I was intrigued by the plot line and the potentially interesting character of the miniaturist, all sorts of wonderful things to look forward to being promised, but never quite delivered. The Miniaturist is extremely well written, but never really developed. Jessie Burton introduces her readers to a myriad of interesting characters, and then does nothing with them. Events unfold, but nothing changes. No one grows. And a story cannot be successful without change and growth, nothing happens without change or growth. Yes, characters die, it’s pretty much inevitable given the circumstances, but Nella, our main character, does not change or grow, even though she claims she has. We’re not given enough background or knowledge of how her experiences have changed her to know that she is, in fact, any different, or any less irritating.

Nella is married off to a man for his money to save her family from destitution, a common thread in 17th century life in Europe. The man is older and kind and doesn’t force himself upon her (immediately this should point a flashing arrow towards the inevitable plot “twist”) and she manages to adjust to life in Amsterdam and deal with her cold sister-in-law and unpleasant acquaintances. Along the way, Johannes, her husband, gives her a cabinet to fill with miniatures of their life – so Nella enlists the services of the miniaturist to help her populate the cabinet. But it becomes clear, and more than little creepy how much the woman knows about Nella’s life, but the character and all her mysteries never really become known, they remain a mystery – which is completely aggravating as it means that the woman driving the plot never really “shows up”.

Any other part of Nella’s life would have been far more interesting, any other part of any of the characters’ lives would have been more interesting. How did Marin wind up so cold? How did she and Otto really connect? Why did all the interesting bits happen “off-screen”? I thought I loved this book with its flowy words and articulate sentences, dynamic dialogue, and unspoken understandings. Two days later, I realized why it felt so off balance. Nothing really happened, we got a snapshot into a few months of a young girl’s life in which she didn’t really do much until her actions no longer mattered.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9780062306845 • 432 pages • originally published August 2014, this edition published June 2015 by Ecco Press • average Goodreads rating 3.58 out of 5 • read in February 2015

Jessie Burton’s Website

The Miniaturist on Goodreads

Get a Copy of The Miniaturist

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