The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton: Book Review

the miniaturist jessie burton book reviewPicador / Jessie Burton
The Miniaturist Book Cover The Miniaturist
Jessie Burton
Historical Fiction
Picador, Ecco Press
July 3rd 2014

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?

The premise of The Miniaturist caught my interest as soon as I read the synopsis. The idea of an elaborate house replica and a miniaturist who makes spectacularly realistic pieces for it seemed so foreign to me, and I knew immediately that I had to find out more. Jessie Burton excels with character development, delivering a rich, atmospheric setting, and creating an air of mystery. However, with several uninteresting subplots and a rather slow pace, her book fell just short of greatness for me.

Burton gives us characters that have been shaped with care, and I do believe that every prominently featured character in this book was more than meets the eye. There are secrets buried deep within these characters, secrets that threaten the facade that they have so carefully created.

Though she is a seemingly simple, young country girl, main character Nella soon develops an obsession with the miniaturist she employed to create pieces for the replica she has of her new home. Her new sister-in-law, Marin, has a spine of the steel and runs her household with precision—even though she herself is unmarried, an oddity in 17th century Amsterdam. Johannes, Nella’s new, much older husband and brother to Marin, is one of the most successful merchants of the city, though he harbors a secret that threatens to tear his life, and that of his close ones, apart.

I truly felt transported to Amsterdam, and have to admit I found myself longing to visit this city while being caught up in the vivid descriptions of the street life. Burton also did a great job of capturing both the sense of religious fervor and the sense of opulence that had its presence known in this city. I also feel like I learned so much about this era that was correctly labeled the Dutch Golden Age.

Though I did find this book hard to put down at first, the pacing can get rather sluggish in some parts. What kept my attention throughout the beginning and middle was the mystery surrounding that of the miniaturist—Who is this strange woman? Does she really possess supernatural powers? How does she know all the things that she does?

The answers come eventually, but the big reveal felt profoundly anticlimactic to me. The other twists that followed didn’t shock me necessarily, with the exception of one twist, in particular, that was a complete blindside—in the best possible way, of course.

I enjoyed reading this book, and the story was utterly unique, fascinating, and engaging. Sadly, however, I do think that this book was not able to live up to its potential. I just felt there was a little something that lacked in the writing—a bigger plot twist, adding more complexity to the characters, or more interesting subplots, even—just something to elevate the writing and this story to the next level.

Still, though, I don’t mean to discourage anyone from reading this book. It definitely made for a good read, but I just feel like it could have been easily been a five-star book if the author had gone in a different direction with some of the components.

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Alicia LeBoeuf
the authorAlicia LeBoeuf
Contributing Writer
I'm a college student pursuing an English major and Communication minor. I love everything book-related and I'm a passionate writer.