The MiniaturistAugust 20, 2015
by Jessie Burton
Secrets! Hypocrisy! Greed! Lust! Violence! It sounds like a good old-fashioned bodice-ripper, doesn’t it? The basic premise: In 17th-century Holland, young Petronella Oortmann is a country girl married off to a powerful, wealthy, older Amsterdam merchant. He’s distant yet kind to her. As a show of his affection, he gives her a nine-room cabinet that is a miniature of their home. (The actual cabinet, which inspired the author Jessie Burton, is in the Rijksmuseum.) In her quest to fill it, with the help of the miniaturist of the title, secrets are revealed, plots are twisted, and fates are meted.
The Miniaturist could have easily devolved into a forbidden romp through historic Amsterdam at the end of its Golden Age. What saves the book is Burton’s language—beautiful in many places, trite in others—and her understanding of the mores and manners of the times. The surprises kept me reading, but I found myself oftentimes flipping back and re-reading this section or that, trying to extract more understanding, clarity, or meaning.
Although I liked the book and have recommended it to friends, two issues niggle. First, what happens to Petronella is never clearly explained or resolved. Was she the victim of magic? Was someone messing with her head? Is she an unreliable narrator? Also, what she experiences in just three months is monumental, and she deals with it as a mature 21st-century woman would rather than a naive 17th-century girl who is literally fresh from the farm. It strains credulity at times, but her likability wins.
Note: The book is being adapted for British television.