What I'm Reading: The Miniaturist

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam-a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion-a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant.

"There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed…"

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 world 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' gift helps Nella to 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?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

The beginning of this book is pretty slow.  Nella is totally out of her depth in her new city and new home.  She's naive and inexperienced, and she encounters considerable trouble trying to find her place in the Brandt household.  The members of the family and staff are closed off, cold, and they are incredulous if not outright resentful of her presence in their home.  As such, it makes sense that the book starts off slow and feels a little difficult to get into.  We see things primarily from Nella's point of view, and her struggle with being an outsider mirrors our own as readers to find a foothold in the novel.

Things pick up once Nella's husband Johannes returns from a long trip and gives her the dollhouse.  I was very intrigued by the mystery behind the dollhouse, particularly the unsolicited pieces that the miniaturist sends to Nella and how these help her unlock the secrets of the Brandt household.  The Brandts are an interesting family, caught in the middle of 17th century ideals of morality, purity, and Christianity while hiding away those parts of themselves that don't conform.  I enjoyed going through Nella's journey of discovery, as she peeled back the layers of secrets and learned more about her new husband and family.  As a character, she really comes alive when her conservative sensibilities come into contact with the less savory parts of the Brandt family, and while she could have written off their secrets as simply "sinful," she instead challenges and ultimately widens her worldview, fighting for her family with admirable strength and courage.  

Burton's exploration of 17th century Amsterdam felt quite rich to me.  Her handling of religious and social issues was compelling and engaging, and her descriptions of the city were some of my favorite.  Amsterdam is such a beautiful and vibrant city, and Burton captured it well on the page.  I could see the canals and streets in her descriptions, and it felt almost like being there.  I also loved the mystery around the miniaturist: who they are, how they know so much about Nella and the Brandts, why they keep sending pieces to Nella.  I think the mystery could have been tighter, particularly in regard to how the miniaturist knows so much about the Brandt household (and other households in Amsterdam, as we later learn).  I like the idea of the miniaturist being this observer who takes in the world and tries to see those things that are hidden away.  But that doesn't explain how the miniaturist knows so much and can actually change/affect Nella's pieces based on particular events. 

My biggest complaint with The Miniaturist is that it is a third person present tense narration.  This felt so clunky and off-putting to me, and it made it that much harder for me to into the story.  I don't really understand why Burton chose this form of narration.  I don't think it added anything to the story at all, and a third person past tense narration would have made the writing flow better and feel more natural.     

Three and a half out of five stars.  


  1. I have the biggest problems with 3rd person books. I often feel disconnected to the characters bc you don't really get into their heads like you can with 1st person you know. This sounds like a good book overall, despite that, though. The description and atmosphere seems to be spot on! I love it when I'm transported into a setting especially when it's another country or era! Great review! :)

    1. Yes, third person narration can be tricky, and that combined with present tense really threw me. It felt like reading those children's books from the 1950s: "See Jane run. Watch John read." But overall, I still enjoyed this book - it felt very atmospheric and had great descriptions of 17th century Amsterdam.

  2. 17th Century Amsterdam is a great setting. I don't think enough books or films take advantage of what an interesting place Amsterdam has bee, and the social conflicts that can arise in a city that has been historically accepting of people and groups with wildly disparate backgrounds and philosophies of life. I am just sorry to see that third person present was the choice, especially since it sounds like it didn't add anything of note to the novel.

    1. Yes, the backdrop was excellent, and you make a great point - Amsterdam is a wonderful setting, and it would be wonderful to see more books/films explore that! I would definitely read/watch those. Besides being such an incredibly beautiful city, as you said, it has a very rich and interesting history, and I think there would be a lot to explore in literature and film.

  3. Present tense narrations drive me crazy, too. It just sounds so unnatural. Atmosphere is one of my favorite aspects of a book, and it sounds like The Miniaturist has it in abundance! Thanks for the review!

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one! I thought maybe I was just being weird, but I agree that it does sound so unnatural. But other than that, it was a solid book, and the atmosphere is great! Amsterdam is such a beautiful and vibrant city, and I loved seeing it come alive on the page.


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