What to do on a hot day? Maybe it’s best to give up on the idea of running errands and slogging through the chores? Why not play hooky and spend the day with a good book? I did that last week, and am still savoring my escape into the golden era of the Dutch masters, XVII century guilds, silk roads and sailing ships.
The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton begins with 18 year old Petronella (Nella) Oortman, arriving into Amsterdam from the Dutch countryside. Poised on the stoop of her new home – with a caged parakeet and suitcases at her feet – she feels alone and out of her depth. Her husband, Johannes Brandt is a rich merchant, almost double her age. This is a marriage of convenience – and no one pretends otherwise.
When the young bride is given entrance, she feels overcome by the scent of pungent spices – especially cinnamon and cardamom – swirling through the opulent canal house. Johannes has commissioned so many paintings that they crowd the walls. Oriental rugs cover the floors and maps of lands unknown to Nella lie scattered about. The exotic feathers and dried bones she discovers make her curious about her husband’s travels.
She soon realizes that he, his sister Marin, and their servants Cornelia and Otto, have secrets that both fascinate and terrify her. Brandt does not make himself available to Nella in any way, but eventually Marin convinces him to take his wife to a splendid Guild banquet, where she again feels unsettled by the wealthy world she is now part of.
Johannes gives her an unusual wedding present – a dollhouse – a reduced replica of their own home on the Herengracht. Her sister-in-law provides her with the address of a local artisan, the miniaturist, who will make furnishings and dolls for the house.
Nella orders a few pieces and is delighted with the detail and craftsmanship, but she’s taken aback when she receives items that she has not ordered. She cannot understand the significance of the tiny pieces. But as strange events unfold around her, it seems as though the miniaturist is warning her of what is to come.
The Miniaturist is Jessie Burton’s first novel. As an author I am impressed by her writing style – her depiction of the historical period drew me right in. Because of my Dutch background, I found the tale absorbing even though sometimes the characters confused me with inconsistencies. Never to the point though – that I stopped enjoying the read.
The scenes of frigid canals and the even-chillier puritanical society that Nella Oortman has to navigate, captured my imagination and transported me to a world, both miles and eons away – a welcome diversion on a sweaty, steamy day in the month of May!