ARC Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Posted August 11, 2014 by Debby in Book Reviews

I received this book for free from Book Expo America in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!! This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

ARC Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie BurtonThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Published by Ecco on August 26th, 2014
Genres: Adult, Historical Fiction
Pages: 416
Format: ARC
Source: Book Expo America

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?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

3.5 Stars

As a primarily young adult reader, I never seem to pay much attention to the adult titles coming out. As such, I was infinitely glad when Gaby brought The Miniaturist to my attention at BEA, and even gladder when Christina consented to give me her copy ♥ This really was an enchanting and atmospheric read, well out of my comfort zone, but thereby even more rewarding.

My desire to read The Miniaturist came from one big factor: it’s historical fiction set in the Netherlands. I’m from the Netherlands! Hey! That sounds perfect. What was even more enchanting, however, is that the plot involves this dollhouse that Johannes gives his new, young bride Nella as a wedding gift. This dollhouse actually exists, and it’s in the Rijksmuseum, where I stood in front of it less than a year ago. I was instantly smitten, because I loved the originality and beauty of taking an existing work of art and then creating such a story.

What further captivated me was how well Burton, an Englishwoman, understood and portrayed the subtleties of the Dutch culture. I’m no history scholar, but I can only believe that the Amsterdam of the 17th century that Burton portrayed is probably a very accurate depiction. Dutch people really value their privacy, but at the same time are extremely nosey about their neighbors. As such, in The Miniaturist, Nella quickly realizes the startling extent to which her life is under scrutiny when she marries Johannes. The Dutch are frugal – even if they are relatively well off – as shown by Nella’s new sister-in-law Marin’s reluctance to spend any money. Through history, the Dutch became hardworking and pragmatic, knowing they need to fend for themselves, from the battles with the sea to the empire the VOC built. I love how that was brought back in the personalities of the characters, particularly the females.

In fact, I would praise The Miniaturist in its subtle, yet realistic, feminist messages. The male characters of the book are far less interesting than the females. Johannes is stubborn, frivolous, at times reckless. Otto is soft-spoken yet strong. Frans is spiteful and withdrawn. Jack is obsessive to dangerous levels. But the females show extraordinary resilience time after time, despite the lower status their sex brings them. Nella is brought into a marriage somewhat unwillingly, completely naive to all that running a household would mean. She finds a house full of mysteries, which sometimes lead to dramatic consequences, but each time she picks herself back up, and slowly she becomes a force to be reckoned with who can stand all on her own. Marin, unmarried and childless at an age where it’s fair enough to raise eyebrows, shows strength, determination, and a mind almost better suited for business than her brother’s. Her character is so complex, but I was more smitten with and impressed by her as each layer of her was peeled back.

So while I was definitely impressed with the portrayal of the Dutch culture, the creativity of the story, the strength of the characters, the story has me conflicted. I must confess I don’t read historical fiction often – much less do I read adult titles. While I was swept up in the rich atmosphere and all the secrets the characters were keeping, the story itself let me down a bit in the end. Mild spoilers, so I’ll hide them just in case. View Spoiler » I don’t like how we ended up at that message, because it felt a bit random to me, but perhaps that is because I’m out of my comfort zone of young adult titles where messages are usually clear-cut and make sense. But irregardless, there were many other loose threads at the end as well, particularly surrounding the motivations of the male characters, which leaves me questioning if there wasn’t a lack of character development for their parts.

Overall, however, as a period drama, I feel like The Miniaturist definitely worked. I was swept up in getting to know these characters, and the prose was blissfully fluid. With it’s mild religious themes, the book also raises some important religious and ethical questions, which I can only imagine would be great to discuss in a book club. It’s a tragic story of love, sin, betrayal, and revenge, and it will linger in my mind for days to come.

Summing Up:

Though The Miniaturist was a bit out of my comfort zone, I’m so glad I got the chance to read it. Especially as a Dutch person, who has seen these dollhouses in person, I was enchanted by the mysterious, creative story and the rich Dutch culture which I believe to be extremely true to life. The drama, growth, and strength of these characters will stay with me. For those interested in adult historical fiction – I’d happily recommend this novel.

GIF it to me straight!


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6 responses to “ARC Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

  1. I have this on my pile to read this week actually and I’m a tad intimidated. I read the first chapter and I fear it’ll be a slow read for me. I’m hoping I’ll get swept away and really enjoy it because I’ve not read anything like it before. We’ll see. I’m happy to see that you enjoyed it for the most part. Isn’t that cover just beautiful? Great review Debby!

  2. This book came out here in Australia a couple of months ago and I keep picking it up and looking at it – it looks great! I really should buy it 🙂 I was super excited when I saw you were going to be reading it! Wonderful review Debby!

  3. I haven’t read too many books about the Dutch culture. I love extending my range to absorb different perspectives. This book also looks so adorable.