The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.” – says the miniaturist in a mysterious note. How true. For I designed myself to read this book, take it into my home and heart, only to feel utterly let down.
Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist sold more than a million copies when it came out in 2014. I can understand why. The blurb is irresistible. Set against the backdrop of Calvinist burgomasters, secret-sugar eaters, and besotted sodomists, this is Amsterdam of the 17th century, at the height of its commercial empire. New to town is young, fresh-faced Petronella Oortman who arrives to embark on married life with the unimaginably wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt. While Johannes proves himself to be less than the consummate husband, he does present his wife with an unusually beautiful betrothal gift: an extraordinary cabinet-sized replica of their home which remains to be furnished by an elusive (if not creepy) miniaturist, whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie ways: a doll maker who predicts the future. At first, Nella is intrigued and intimidated by this mystifying, secretive household and their inner worlds. Bit by bit, she uncovers (but agonizingly slowly) the closed world of the Brandt household, but as she discovers its secrets she realizes the dangers that await them all. Does the miniaturist have the power to foretell their fate and change it? And will she be the key to their salvation or the architect of their downfall?
These questions are not merely rhetorical. Puzzle after puzzle greet Nella who, despite her countryside naivete, displays surprising grit and curiosity in solving the infinite mysteries. But – is Nella plausible as a newly-wedded teenager in the 17th century? No. This woman has more aplomb and station than many 21st century feminists I know. Nella sounds more to me like Nancy Drew, and less like a rural, Dutch 18-year old discovering her new life is filled with eerie magic, a former African slave, and a homosexual spouse.
This is one hell of a complicated plot. Let’s say the point of the plot was to create mystery. I would think at some stage, you’d want to unravel that mystery so your poor readers might have a good night’s sleep. But no. Questions abound, and to answer them are only more questions. Such confusion, and utter surprise that after all this forging on, there was well, so very little at the end to arrive at. I mean, there is even a glossary- quite a conceit, but still, it doesn’t deliver.
There is first-class research that’s gone into this book, and there are some passages that I returned to over and over again for their sheer beauty: “A lifetime isn’t enough to know how a person will behave.” – Yes, my goodness. How profound.
How’s this: “When you have truly come to know a person, Nella — when you see beneath the sweeter gestures, the smiles — when you see the rage and the pitiful fear which each of us hide — then forgiveness is everything. We are all in desperate need of it.” – I love it. Dripping with beauty.
And this was my favourite: “You are sunlight through a window, which I stand in, warmed. From back to front, I love you. One touch lasts a thousand hours.”
So you see, there are moments of undeniable pulchritude. Still… I remain uncomfortable. Think badly-fitted bra. Or ankle-strangling socks. Or a wedgie. This book is so upsetting because it has the makings of a one-of-its-kind novel. It should slay, bewitch, bedazzle. But I was left with literary indigestion. I am unconvinced. I quote Rachel Cooke in her review: “Again and again, I found myself thinking: that would not happen. Why, for instance, is Nella able to move around Amsterdam unchaperoned? Even feminism doesn’t make a woman invisible. Why, towards the end of the novel, does she think longingly of all the thrilling conversations she and Johannes have enjoyed? The reader will feel they have barely been in the same room for more than five minutes.”
The story, while fascinating, just doesn’t come together for me. There are too many unanswered questions, too many things left to the reader’s demanded trust and imagination, and it simply doesn’t come through.
“In suffering we find our truest selves.” -says the miniaturist. Well, I am off to see where my true self is after this debacle.