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 . . .
Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?
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.