Published August 26, 2014
400 pages (hardcover)
When I was a little kid, my mom had a couple of shadow boxes that hung on the wall. The boxes had about twenty separate small compartments, each of which housed a teeny miniature. There was a little rooster, a pair of tiny skis, and a small wooden nativity scene. Each little miniature told a story—it was a keepsake that my mom had picked up to remind her of a special vacation or a person she loved. Apparently, back then (I remember them from the seventies and eighties, but I’m fairly certain my mom had them for many years before that), these shadow boxes were quite popular . . . and the miniature trinkets to fill them could be found in every souvenir shop.
This obsession with miniatures has a long history. It was a trend well before my time (or my mother’s, for that matter). One of the trendsetters was a young Dutchwoman named Petronella Oortman, who lived in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. Petronella married a rich merchant named Johannes Brandt, and, in 1686, began to commission a miniature version of their home, complete with marble floors, ornate wallcoverings, and furniture. All of the miniatures were exact replicas of the life-sized versions and made completely to scale. They were housed in a cabinet of tortoiseshell and pewter. The miniature house still exists today and is currently displayed at the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam.
The Miniaturist is a novel based on Petronella Oortman’s real-life miniature house. Petronella (called “Nella” in the book) and Johannes and the cabinet house are plucked from real life, but the rest of the book is completely fictionalized.
Nella is a girl from the country. At eighteen, she marries Johannes, a rich, thirty-nine-year-old merchant in Amsterdam. When she arrives at her marital home, Johannes is away on business, and only his cold spinster sister, Marin, and the houseservants, Otto and Cornelia, are at the house to receive her.
Upon Johannes’ return a few days later, however, he does not join Nella in their marital bed. The one acknowledgement of her that he makes is a gift, commissioned at great expense: the cabinet house. The rooms, with their artwork and wallpaper, are exactly the same as the life-sized versions.
In the hopes that her marriage will improve, Petronella decides to embrace the gift. She finds the name of a miniaturist advertised in Smit’s List (the Dutch, seventeenth-century version of the Yellow Pages) with the cryptic tagline: “ALL, AND YET NOTHING.” Nella commissions three items from the miniaturist: a block of marzipan, a lute, and a betrothal cup. The requested items, beautiful and intricately detailed, are delivered soon thereafter with a note that reads simply: “EVERY WOMAN IS THE ARCHITECT OF HER OWN FORTUNE.”
Nella is getting ready to discard the packaging when she realizes that, oddly, the package contains more than just her commissioned items:
She tips the packet up, and three wrapped items fall onto the coverlet. Nella fumbles with the material encasing the first, and discovers two exquisite wooden chairs. Lions the size of ladybirds have been carved on their armrests; the backs are covered with green velvet, studded with copper nails. On each of the arms, sea monsters writhe in acanthus leaves. Nella realizes she’s seen these chairs before. Last week in the salon downstairs, Marin was sitting on one of them.
Beginning to feel uneasy, she unwraps the next item. Something small but bulky waits in the folds of the cloth, and she wrenches it free. It is a cradle, made of oak, with intricate floral inlays, tin runners and a fringe of lace at the hood. A quiet miracle of wood, its tiny presence nevertheless makes Nella’s throat constrict. She places it in the middle of her palm, where it rocks in a perfect motion, almost of its own accord.
Nella lays it down on the bed. This has to be a mistake, she thinks—these pieces are intended for someone else. Chairs, a cradle—perhaps the usual things a woman might ask for a replica of her house—but I didn’t, I definitely didn’t. She rips apart the wrapping on the third package, and beneath another layer of blue material is a pair of miniature dogs. Two whippet bodies, no larger than moths, covered in silky gray fur and with skulls the size of peas. Between them, there is a bone for them to chew, a shank of clove painted yellow—the smell is unmistakable. Nella picks up the animals and peers closer, her blood charging around her body. These dogs are not any dogs. They are Rezeki and Dhana.
Somehow the miniaturist knows more about Nella and her new home than she should. And her gifts of uncommissioned miniatures provide clues about the deep, dark secrets that lay within the life-sized Brandt home. With her artistry in the miniatures that continue to arrive unbidden, the miniaturist foretells tragedy and miracle, and Nella tries to make sense of this new life.
In this interview on Bookish, author Jessie Burton explains how the cabinet house inspired her to write a novel:
Her cabinet house is a thing of beauty, an exact replica of her real abode, at the same cost. I was inspired by her decision to spend thousands of dollars on a house she could not inhabit, food she couldn’t eat, and chairs she couldn’t sit on. Why did she do that? What was she lacking, or surfeiting, in her real life, that compelled her to spend so much money on a miniature world?
The plot, which is Burton’s fictionalized conception of the answers to these questions, is unique (and likely far more interesting than the real answers were). The book is not particularly uplifting, but it is engaging (how could it not be with the likes of affairs, gay sex, and prophesies?). One beef: I had hoped for a more complete ending. Without giving anything away, I will simply say that this one is certainly not wrapped up in a happy little bow, and that some miniaturist mysteries remain unsolved at the end of the book.
The setting is not richly realized, but there are aspects of the time (mostly now-outdated conceptions of morality) that play a huge role in the book. In that way, the book is a touch heavy-handed, but not overly so.
The characters—from Nella, the country girl turned rich, city wife, to Otto, Johannes’ black manservant—are varied and interesting. Some are complex, like Marin, Nella’s severe and mean sister-in-law, or Johannes, Nella’s dismissive and unloving husband. They seem harsh and unlikeable, but appear from the start to have hidden redeeming qualities.
I’ve been reading a lot of four-hundred page books lately. As I have said time and time again, that is usually way too long for a book, but it seems to be a popular length these days. To its credit, this one joins the ranks of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and Americanah—it’s long, but it’s not too long. In fact, it reads very quickly (the day it was due back to the library, I plowed through the last two hundred pages in one quick sitting). It doesn’t drag, and it doesn’t feel like it should have been edited down extensively.
- a LibraryReads List selection for August 2014
- an Indie Next List pick for September 2014
Who should read it: Mom (i.e., believers in the magic of miniatures).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon: