The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton, Davina Porter

Historical fiction isn’t my typical genre but we chose this one for our local book group because it sounded mysterious. And boy was it ever mysterious! It wasn’t perfect but it was full of darkness and secrets that come back to haunt and those are always my favorite things to read.

Set in Amsterdam way back in 1686, 18 year old Nella arrives at her brand new husband’s estate and receives a cold welcome from his sister Marin and their maid Cornelia. Otto, the manservant, is the only one who doesn’t seem pissed off that she’s moving in. She is set up in a lavish room and left to wait for Johannes, the husband she knows not at all. When he arrives he doesn’t give her the time of day either. What is up?

“Her husband who speaks in all tongues save that of love.”

When I first began this book the setup felt a little Rebecca-ish with the gorgeous mansion, broody husband and creepy staff but as things went along it wasn’t a Rebecca clone at all but something else entirely. Nella soon realizes that she isn’t going to have the typical marriage she’d been dreaming of. She keeps waiting for Johannes to show up with his “rising rod of pain” as her mother enticingly described it, haha, and ask her to perform her wifely duties but it doesn’t happen. She’s both relieved and disappointed. Instead she settles for his companionship when she can get it and busies herself with settling into her new life. To keep his wife occupied, Johannes gifts Nella with a cabinet filled with a miniature version of their home and goes about his merry way, doing whatever it is he does. She orders some pieces for the tiny home from the local “miniaturist” and when they’re delivered the package contains extra pieces that alarm Nella. They are pieces that only someone intimately familiar with the home would be able to create. Nella writes a scathing letter of complaint to the miniaturist and more pieces show up. Who is this person and why are they doing this?

This plot bit was the least satisfying part of the book for me. Nella sets out to investigate and surprisingly this question is never fully answered to my nosy satisfaction which was weird seeing as it was the name of the book. It kind of fizzled and died a slow death but I guess it made for a beautiful cover? Fortunately the story had enough intrigue and other goings-on that it really wasn’t a big deal to me in the end. 

These people have many secrets and they all come back to haunt Nella’s new family. She must find strength against the most unexpected twists of fate and the utter disappointment of her new life. I’m being purposely vague because I know people hate the spoilers. I hate the spoilers. I’ll just say that Nella has to grow up quick and deal with some serious shit. She does so with grace and some humorous thoughts. At least I found many of them humorous. On prickly Marin and her lack of a husband she thinks, “Perhaps there was no man stout enough to take the vicious battering.” That just made me laugh because it was so accurate in the moment. But don’t let this fool you into thinking this is a light and airy book. It is dark, it is pretty bleak and there are several scenes that may haunt me for months.

“We can do nothing we women. All we can do if we’re lucky is stitch up the mistakes other people make.”

The characters are richly detailed and nuanced. Even the people that I disliked early on became fleshed out and believably flawed characters. They make plenty of mistakes and pay dearly for them. So although this is not my usual genre of choice, it turned out to be an engrossing and richly detailed story of secrets and little mysteries that took many unexpected turns I didn’t anticipate. The women also totally steal the show and I recommend it if you like secrets and drama and can stomach some brief moments of terrible violence.