Amsterdam might be my favourite city in the world. I first visited when I was 13 and thought it was the coolest place but it wasn’t until I was 22 and got to live there that I realized it was the most amazing city.
I’m always searching for books about or set in my city. It’s one of the reasons I jumped on The Dinner so quickly, why I read Tulipmania, why I got so excited when I saw Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam on the shelf at the book store.
So when I started hearing about Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, set in the Golden Age in Amsterdam, I knew that I would be reading it shortly.
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to go to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, you will likely have seen the cabinet houses that they have there. They are an incredible example of the wealth and craftsmanship available in the city at the time. I hope you clicked on that link because those houses are mesmerizing – there’s nothing I love more than to get up on the ladder in front and stare at it. Sadly, I’ve never been able to stay for a long period of time because there are always so many other people waiting to get their turn.
Burton has used the cabinet of Petronella Oortman as a jumping off point for a kind of magical story. Petronella Oortman arrives at the canal house of her new husband, Johannes Brandt. Petronella, Nella as she is known, is a provincial girl who has been married to this older, wealthy merchant trader as a way of helping her family in the wake of her father’s death. Her family’s name is an old one and the hope is that her name will help legitimize the new wealth of the Brandts.
But Nella’s husband isn’t interested in his new wife at all. Nella expected to have to perform her wifely duties, as unpleasant as they were sure to be, but Johannes isn’t interested at all. Instead he secrets himself away in his study, not to be disturbed. Her austere sister-in-law Marin is all about the Calvinist way of depriving oneself of the pleasures of this life, serving plain meals, wearing sensible un-showy clothes and refusing to light expensive fires despite the cold. Nella feels alone, unsure of what her place is in this strange new household.
Then Johannes presents her with the cabinet house – a perfect replica of their house on the Prinsengracht. He tells her she has free reign to do with the house as she pleases. At first she is totally offended by the gift, thinking it is mocking her status in the home that she is not mistress of. But when she finds the name of a miniaturist on the Kalverstraat, she decides to write and ask him to make some pieces for her. The pieces she gets are incredible. It is as if the miniaturist is spying on the house. As she gets more pieces that seem to tell secrets that the household would rather stay hidden, Nella becomes obsessed with finding out who the miniaturist is and how s/he knows so much about the household.
The reviews that I’ve read are really focused on the mystery surrounding the identity of the miniaturist, often expressing frustration that there aren’t clear cut answers. And I would agree with that part of it – the miniaturist’s story is never fleshed out. But I think that the miniaturist, despite the title, is actually a secondary plotline. I think the point of the novel is more about finding one’s place in the world. Nella comes to Amsterdam without any idea of who she is and what she’s supposed to be doing and in the end she has taken charge of her household and the people in it, finding her place and fighting to get what’s hers. Johannes is living with a dark secret that threatens his life and livelihood when it’s discovered. He spends his days tortured by his reality, knowing that he can never be himself fully. Marin too has a secret and she tries to make amends for it by living austerely. If she can deprive herself of a warm fire, of nice things, then maybe she will be able to make up for the shame she feels at the love she cannot control. Ultimately Johannes and his sister are confronted by the truth and pay the ultimate price and it’s kind of devastating.
The Miniaturist is about prejudices and mob mentality and finding the ability to stand up for what you believe in and just be yourself.
I started reading this book because it was set in a place that I love but I ended up loving it because it made a greater point about love and humanity.