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God and the Mighty Guilder: Jessie Burton’s “The Miniaturist”

Historical Fiction Book Reviews
Historical Fiction Book Reviews

Title: The Miniaturist: A Novel

Author: Jessie Burton

Publisher: Peebo & Pilgrim Ltd.

Copyright: 2014

ISBN: 978-0-06-230681-4

Format: E-Book, 416 Pages, $8.82 [Amazon Paperback], $ 16.87 [Amazon Hardcover], $10.99 [Kindle], $31.95 [Audible], $10.72 [Barnes and Noble Paperback], $17.30 [Barnes and Noble Hardcover], $10.99 [Nook], $10.99 [Google Play], $10.99 [iBooks]


“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?




Beginning & Character Review 

The year is 1686 and Petronella Oortman has arrived in the city of Amsterdam, the glittering utopia rife  with pomp and splendor.  The protagonist called “Nella” has arrived in Amsterdam with the express purpose of moving to her husband, Johannes Brandt’s home.  Bear in mind that Nella is a quiet country girl from a very old Dutch family with a good name and hailed originally from the smaller Assendelft.  From her arrival in the city, Nella seems overwhelmed with it all: the busy city, the expectations to be a good wife, and feeling alone in a new place.  When she arrives at her new home at the sign of the Dolphin at the Herengracht Canal, Nella seems to almost enter a new world where nothing is the same ever again.  It reminded me a little of Alice as she clambers into the rabbit hole or the Pevensie children who meander through the wardrobe into Narnia.  While the story doesn’t have any eccentric or peculiar characters like Alice in Wonderland or The Chronicles of Narnia, Nella finds herself surrounded with odd people altogether and a sort of dream-like quality seems to pervade the book.

Upon her arrival, Nella finds herself very much alone.  The door to the house is ajar and there isn’t anyone to meet her or even to greet her for that matter.  Like Alice wandering through that rabbit hole, Nella moves forward into the house, filled with wonderment.  The first person that Nella happens upon is a gray-eyed young woman clad in black but there is something altogether somber about her.  We soon learn that her name is Marin and that she is in fact the sister of Nella’s absent husband, just after Nella has mistaken her for a housekeeper.

“A Family Portrait,” Gillis Van Tilborgh. 17th Century.

In the Brandt household, Nella quickly finds that she is not the “lady of the house” that she was led to think she would be [her mother preached enough about it].  It is in fact Marin, her stodgy and puritanical sister-in-law who truly rules the roost at the Brandt residence.  From the food that is cooked to the curtains that are placed in whichever room to trips that Johannes makes, Marin oversees it all. Despite being eighteen-years-old and the wife of Johannes, it seems like Nella is treated like nothing short of a troublesome child who needs to be coddled.  Aside from Marin, there is the eccentric maid Cornelia who doesn’t even act like a maid and who has a habit of acting rather foolishly and childishly.  The word to sum up Cornelia would be foolish.  Otto is the manservant who works in the Brandt household but he is as part of the family as anyone else and there is a rather secretive, unassuming nature about him.  The kicker is that Otto is of African descent, something that is altogether rare in Amsterdam, and it is something that astonishes Nella.  When she first meets him, she cannot stare at him with her mouth agape.

The other figure in the story that we meet is the master of the house himself, Johannes Brandt.  At first you see him enter the house in the dark of night and even then, you can tell that there is something about him that is odd.  He stays away from Nella as if she has the plague and acts anything but husbandly towards her.  The person that he most interacts with is his heckling sister and even in such cases, he seems to be a largely reserved man.  Throughout the rest of the story, Johannes seems to away from the house constantly, forcing Nella to interact with the odd trio of Cornelia, Otto, and Marin.

Two other characters that are worth mention are Frans and Agnes Meermans.  Frans and Agnes are a married couple that epitomize what Johannes detests most about Amsterdammers – they are greedy, frivolous but at the drop of a hat, they can become like pious saints.  There is something altogether snake-like about Frans, especially in the way that he interacts with the Brandt family.  Agnes, the wife of Frans, owns a great store of sugar that the couple wants Johannes to sell.  However, Agnes herself is petty, condescending, vain, and she needs the best of everything.  One could even liken her to the temperament of a petulant and troublesome child.  To put it succinctly, the Meermans present an interesting element in the story.

BAL43451 Portrait of Sophia Trip, Wife of Balthasar Coymans by Helst, Bartolomeus van der (1613-70) Johnny van Haeften Gallery, London, UK Dutch, out of copyright
“Portrait of Sophia Trip,” Wife of Balthasar Coymans by Helst, Bartolomeus van der (1613-70).

Last but not least, there are three essential characters that should be discussed.  The first character is Pastor Pelicorne, the puritanical and rigid protestant pastor who almost reminds one of the radical Savonarola of 15th century Florence.  He is a man of the cloth and he is very much “by the book,” so-to-speak.  Sunday after Sunday, he preaches his rather stringent, stern, and exceedingly austere sermons which seem to inspire the Amsterdammers to intense piety.  He later comes to play an interesting part in the story.  While wandering around the streets of Amsterdam, Nella keeps running into a blonde woman who seems to stare at her in a rather unnerving way.  A good amount of the story involves Nella searching for this woman and trying to talk to her, but again and again, the woman seems to flee.  The cryptic manner in which Jessie Burton writes causes me to wonder who exactly is that strange woman with the shock of white-blonde hair?

Lastly, arguably the most important figure in the book is the Miniaturist.  Upon the occasion of their marriage, Johannes buys Nella a lovely cabinet house which she can furnish with miniature furniture and dolls.  Her sister-in-law, Marin one day gives Nella a book called “Smit’s List,” a directory of local businessmen and tradesmen.  This is where she finds a listing for “The Miniaturist.”  Nella writes to the Miniaturist and requests some furniture to be made for her house, but before she knows it, she begins receiving an array of strange objects that she did not expect, let alone request.  Items that Nella requested seem to almost tell the future.  This is where the story begins to spin out of control.  Nella cannot help but wonder if, in some way, the Miniaturist is either foretelling the future or controlling it.  Moreover, is the Miniaturist tied to the blonde woman in some way?  What does it all mean?

My Take

All right, so here is my take on The Miniaturist.  This book had me constantly guessing and conjecturing, as it was permeated by the great mystery of its namesake.  Who is the Miniaturist?  Going from page to page, I couldn’t help but go crazy with Nella and her desperate search for answers.  What wasn’t apparent in the beginning was that Nella’s world is like a fragile house of cards that could be knocked over by the smallest mistake.  I couldn’t help but get swept up in the mystery and Nella’s battle for survival in the busy urban sprawl of Amsterdam.

If you are looking for a story that will boggle your mind and if you enjoy a good twist, this book is for you.  It is apparent that author Jessie Burton did a fantastic job in painting a stunning picture of the story, drawing us into her world of seventeenth century Amsterdam.  The characters were flawed and highly realistic, especially the protagonist who with her childlike manner that I found endearing.  It was easy to sympathize if not empathize with her.  It was her husband who I had a little difficult connecting with as a character but that could be because he was so shrouded by the fog of mystery.  If you are looking for a good book of intrigue, plot twists, rich character development, and such eloquent prose, take a chance on The Miniaturist.  You won’t be disappointed.



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