The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Published by Ecco, a Harper Collins imprint
I purchased the hardcover version of this book at Barnes and Noble.
This one had been on my radar for quite some time, it was getting rave reviews from just about every blog and podcast that I follow.
Let me begin by saying that this book packs a punch! It starts quietly moving through the story, and you know that there’s more to it, but you’re never quite sure where it’s going. By the time you get to the end you realize that it kept picking up the pace, and you’ve raced to the end. I was pleasantly surprised with the way Burton pulled me along.
So what’s this fascinating book about? At the heart of it is a mystery. Or is it two mysteries; or maybe three? It just keeps you guessing.
The book opens in January 1687 Amsterdam with a scene from a mysterious burial. We’re not sure who is being entombed under the floor in the church, and we’re introduced to a few women with no idea yet of who they are and how they fit into the story. I found the description of how bodies are actually entombed in the church floor pretty gruesome, but I believe that was a common practice during that time.
From the burial we are then moved back in time to October 1686 with the arrival of Nella in Amsterdam. Nella’s father has died and left the family riddled with debt, so she is married off to a respected, wealthy merchant in order to save the family.
Johannes is quite a bit older than 18 year old Nella, but he’s a kind, quiet man who was taken by her talent when he heard her play the lute. They are married in her home town, and then he immediately leaves her to travel for business, which means that Nella has travelled alone to Amsterdam to start her new life as his wife.
When Nella arrives in Amsterdam she’s met by her sister-in-law Marin, a stern woman who quickly intimidates Nella. When Marin makes the decision that Nella’s pet parakeet must stay in the kitchen, and not in Nella’s bedroom, Nella acquiesces.
Her first night in her new home, poor Nella is left feeling alone and unsure of her place in the household, and she’s wondering why her husband is not there to greet her. She tries to sleep, but she hears her husband’s voice as he arrives home – and without checking in on his wife, he shuts himself in his office.
This is how our story begins. Nella moves through the start of the book, existing in a quiet, almost bored life never feeling like she quite fits in. Her husband is elusive and a mystery to her.
It’s not long, though, until Johannes presents Nella with a wedding gift. It’s called a cabinet, but it’s described as an elaborate miniature version of their home. Very expensive, and considered an indulgence, Marin is annoyed that her brother has spent so much for such a useless gift. Johannes explains to Marin and Nella that it’s for Nella’s education and it will give her something to do.
Even though Marin is annoyed with the gift, she provides Nella with a catalog of craftsmen and enough funds for her to find someone to create furniture and decor for the cabinet.
Enter the miniaturist – and the mystery (or mysteries) begin!
– Who is the miniaturist, and how is it that the creations for the cabinet are mimicking Nella’s life?
– Are the whispered voices and opening and closing of doors in the middle of the night just Nella’s imagination?
– Who is the blond woman that appears and disappears every time Nella is out walking through the city?
– Why does Johannes lock himself in his office or disappear to his warehouse, leaving Nella pretty much on her own?
These are just a few of the mysteries in this book, and trust me, there are more. As Nella tries to find answers to these questions, she begins to find her voice and her strength, and by the end of the book she has become much different than the quiet, lonely young bride that we meet upon her arrival to Amsterdam.
I found this book so compelling right from the start. Burton’s pacing was spot on as mystery upon mystery starts to unravel, and I was surprised on more than one occasion. It never lags, even with the descriptions of the business world in 17th century Amsterdam. I’m definitely going to do some research on Amsterdam, a city that I know absolutely nothing about – but am now intrigued. For me that’s a sign of a really good book, and how well the author keeps the reader engaged.
Check this one out – and if you do, please feel free to leave a comment.