When Nella Oortman’s father dies leaving his family in financial straits, Nella has little choice but to marry Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant from Amsterdam. However, Nella’s romantic notions of married life are quickly dispelled when her new husband ignores her and she realises her sister-in-law, Marin, is the true mistress of her new home. Marin is a cold woman who seems to find fault with everything Nella does and she soon finds herself wishing she was back in the country.
Despairing of ever finding her place, Nella does her utmost to please Johannes but her dreams are shattered when she learns a shocking secret about her husband’s sexuality and realises she is trapped in a marriage with no prospects. Nella tries to console herself with the gift Johannes bought for her wedding, a miniature cabinet house with rooms an exact replica of those in the Brandt house, and she engages a miniaturist to make bespoke pieces.
Initially, Nella is enchanted by the craftsmanship but when she begins to receive items she did not order which are eerily identical to their larger counterparts, Nella begins to feel uneasy and is determined to seek out the mysterious miniaturist. Nella is astounded to discover the miniaturist is a woman but no matter how hard she tries to find her, the woman keeps eluding her.
When Nella receives a parcel containing tiny figures identical to each member of the household and their acquaintances, Nella begins to believe the miniaturist has the gift of prophecy and is trying to warn her. As secrets come tumbling out into the light, Nella is the one who has to mature from a naive young girl into a woman capable of keeping her household together.
When I downloaded The Miniaturist, I wasn’t aware of the hype surrounding it and will admit to having been drawn more to the idea of a miniature house more than anything else because I have always loved dolls houses, especially the really expensive ones full of period detail.
The novel is set in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century and while the mystery surrounding the miniaturist is central to the plot, the book also examines the lives of women repressed by their role in society. While Nella arrives in Amsterdam to begin married life with a man she has never met, she seems to know a lot more about sex than I would’ve expected for a girl of that century even if she is from the country. Nella seems obsessed by the fact she and Johannes are not sleeping together but while there are plenty clues for the reader about her husband’s sexuality, Nella discovers it the hard way and is completely devastated. The marriage was arranged by Marin to cover up her brother’s predilection for young men which could lead to him being sentenced to death; it seems Amsterdam in the past isn’t as forward thinking as its modern counterpart.
The Brandt house is full of secrets and the miniaturist seems to know its occupants better than Nella herself which completely confounds and horrifies her at the same time. How is it possible for a stranger to know so much about what goes on behind closed doors? Unfortunately, the mystery of the miniaturist is never fully explained which makes it seem incidental to the events that befall the household. Although, the identity of the miniaturist is revealed, we never meet her and her motivations are never fully explored. There are numerous occasions when Nella feels she is being watched and detects a presence in the house, so I’m guessing this is supposed to be a clue the miniaturist was actually inside the house observing them, but there are so many people spying on each other, it’s hard to tell.
The historical aspects of the story are well written and it was obvious a lot of research was done into the time period, however I did feel some of the prose was a little too modern. The book was stuffed full of different themes, from homosexuality to mixed race relationships, however there really wasn’t room for them to be explored adequately. I can’t help thinking this would’ve been a great story if it had been about Marin’s forbidden love. It was an interesting read but nowhere near as compelling as it could’ve been.