Reading Roundup: First Pick for 2016
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
The beautiful cover was a visual invitation to us all. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, The Miniaturist was inspired by an intriguing art piece of the Dutch Golden Age. This elaborate cabinet house, a dollhouse once owned by Petronella Oortman (1656 – 1716), now holds a popular place in the permanent collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. An indulgence of wealthy women of the time, these cabinet houses were decorated extravagantly at great cost. Between the years of 1686 and 1710 Petronella decorated and furnished her house, a replica of her own, with expensive materials and intricate miniatures.
While the author has chosen a historical person, period, place and art piece for her story, the real story ends there. The novel opens with a young Petronella arriving from her country home to join her new, much older husband, Johannes Brandt, a prominent silk merchant she barely knows. She enters her lavish home in Amsterdam to find her husband absent, and in his place she is met by his cold and judgmental sister, Marin. Confined by her unwelcoming surroundings and the strict codes of conduct of her day, Petronella begins a lonesome and confusing life. Her husband has a secret life, which when revealed, leads to even more isolation and turmoil in the Brandt family.
Petronella’s cabinet house, a gift from her new husband, becomes a distraction and obsession as she receives, through a messenger, tiny creations from an artist, a “miniaturist” who seems to know more of her life than she does. Who is the miniaturist? How is so much known of Petronella and her home? These tiny miniature pieces unexpectedly arrive and often foretell events set to occur in the future. In this part of the story, more than one reader admitted to being slightly befuddled by the twists and turns of the unknowns. Only after we began to think of this as a story with elements of magic, requiring a suspension of disbelief, did we begin to appreciate the story in its entirety.
Another feature of the story is that it, surprisingly, deals with racism and other timely social issues. Most satisfying to all was the author’s skill in bringing scenery and settings to vivid life. She keeps a taut plot, holds a reader’s interest, and her descriptions of Amsterdam and its society were compelling. You could smell the air, feel the rich fabrics, and water images abound as she describes the coastal Dutch city. Most of us were left with a new interest in Amsterdam and the sense that this book was wide open to a sequel.
If this book peaked your interest in the Dutch Golden Age, you might also try The Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, a novel that centers around the artist Vermeer. Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes is a fascinating biography of one of the greatest of all artists. And for a look at the influence of the 17th century Dutch on our own history, you might try City of Dreams: a Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam And Early Manhattan by Beverly Swerling.
∼Deborah, Branch Manager, John Marshall branch library