I will skip to the good stuff and tell you The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton, is definitely worth reading. I’d give it 4/5 stars, in fact. But that has more to do with the beautiful writing and charismatic voice that make this book greater than the sum of its disjointed, surprisingly shallow parts.
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…
The Miniaturist has been touted as a historical novel, but I just didn’t feel it – either in time or place. Yes, Burton describes the various conditions for women, blacks, merchants, the poor, and generously mentions the Dutch VOC, but I felt you could have plucked up any of the characters – and any of the issues – and placed them in a variety of eras or locales. In my favorite kinds of historical fiction, the reader truly feels transported, and the time and place act as palpable parts of the story. I didn’t feel that with The Miniaturist.
I also wondered that for all the twists and turns and complexities of the characters, they each seemed rather shallow. The author showed me their angst and inner turmoil, but I hardly felt it. I kept hoping for more of an emotional impact, but ultimately felt distant from each of the characters.
And the magical undertone – the mystery that seems at the heart of The Miniaturist – is dropped like a stone in the third quarter of the book. I was left feeling confused and totally unsatisfied.
So why is this still a book you should read?
Because for all its faults, it’s still quite clever, and the writing is truly lovely. There is an enchantment to the way Burton turns a phrase. Perhaps with my critique, I’m putting too much of this book under a microscope – much like you might do with miniatures themselves – but with Burton’s clear talent, I’m hoping for a tighter, deeper sophomore novel.
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