Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Miniaturist.
A country girl from Assendelft, nineteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam for a hastily arranged marriage to wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. With only her pet parakeet for company, Nella is thrust into the domestic machinations of daily life in the Brandt house, a sprawling mansion situated in the icy heart of the Herengracht area. Naïve and virginal, the oddness of Nella’s new surroundings, “the gleaming and the embroidered, wreathed in the smell of smoking tallow,” adds to this girl’s startling sense of dislocation.
Marriage is a giant occasion for both Nella and Brandt, though for differing reasons. Enjoying a wave of popularity since he’s returned from the fledgling Dutch colonies, Johannes (a “pleasure-loving and complicated man”) is once again in high demand in Amsterdam, and for the society events hosted by the guild of sugar sellers. Johannes may be handsome and popular and philanthropic, but his harsh criticisms are not looked upon kindly by the puritanical burgomasters, the all-male community who rule the city with a seemingly insurmountable moral countenance.
Nella finds herself ensconced in Johannes’ strange, shadowy, deceptively quiet house with only his sister, Marin, servant Cornelia, and Otto, the Johannes’ coffee-colored slave boy, for company. Picturing herself “rising from the flames of Assendelft,” her mother’s words echo throughout her memory: “you need to marry a man who can keep a guilder in his purse.” But any certainty Nella that will claim the role of a loving wife is thwarted by the scornful look in Cornelia’s eyes, the constant edge in Marin’s voice, and Johannes’s strange and often inscrutable diffidence.
Love for Nella proves to be more nebulous than she had at first thought. Feeling invisible and ignored, she cannot describe her bafflement in her exchanges with Marin, “a secret surveyor of maps and an annotator of specimens” and a husband who speaks “in all tongues but that of love.” Nor can she with Cornelia and Otto, whose worlds always seem hidden. When Johannes makes her a wedding present of a curious doll cabinet with nine empty rooms, Nella can do little more than hang her head in shame. The mustard-colored piece, monumental and watchful, stands in the center of her bedroom. The pieces in the cabinet give off a shifting silver radiance as Nella feels shipwrecked between the idea of her marriage and its actual state. The cabinet is a beautiful, useless, even horrible reminder of her fate.
Symbolism strafes the story like a dark force: a trapped starling yearning to be free; Marin and Johannes’ deep, dark secrets; Nella, too shy to approach her husband yet captivated by the intensity of his blond good looks; the cabinet itself, which opens onto Nella’s strange new world; and a conundrum that Nella must eventually try to solve. This is Holland in the 1680s, where actions have consequences. A man’s fall from grace can lead to poverty, despair, and even death in an environment where the social and moral order is strictly defined by the religious elite. The Brandts may exist on a diet of money and shame, yet from the beginning this husband and wife, sister and servant are in danger of being doomed by circumstances, society, and Johannes’ estranged friends Agnes and Frans Meermans, who have asked him to sell their precious sugarloaf.
Burton’s tale abounds with an exquisite tension, reflecting the agony of her characters’ precarious circumstances. Nella is further unsettled by the vision of handsome “Jack Philips from Bermondsey,” who brings a gift from a mysterious miniaturist: a lute in a tiny silver box, a block of marzipan, and miniatures of Johannes’ beloved dogs. Nella begins to feel a sense of invasion, as if she is being closely observed in her “bridal foolishness.” Someone has peered into her life and thrown her off-center. Soon the unasked-for miniature pieces threaten to mock Nella’s unvisited marital bed and her eternal virginity.
The characters are full of life: Madame Marin, whose moodiness and moments of shy generosity are dashed by an “unkind comment”; prideful Johannes, pleasure-loving and complicated, who runs terrible risks with the pastor and magistrates; Nella, a girl who in any other time period could change her destiny; and Cornelia, a servant who at first fails to see beyond her traditional role yet becomes surprisingly clever and resourceful as the story progresses. All are sketched skillfully and with precision.
As Burton slices away the veneer of her characters’ private lives, it’s easy for us to imagine their clothes, their gorgeously ascetic surroundings, and the snow and ice-covered streets and canals of Amsterdam. From the poisonous jealousy of Agnes and Franz to the tragic, misguided judgment of Johannes’s contemporaries to Marin’s lost and broken happiness, Burton demonstrates her considerable skill in presenting Nella as hemmed in by her lack of status, yet strong in both action and in spirit.
Nella’s resigned frustration over the many slights and unfair situations she must deal with strikes us as the only sensible option for one who must continue in a marriage for the sake of those whom she grows to love and respect. While I thought the tale was a bit too melodramatic toward the end, Burton writes in a soft, unpretentious rhythm that does not call attention to her style. She renders her historical narrative with an aura of magic, beautifully balancing the inevitability of Nella’s outcome with the irresistible and soulful forces that make us who we are.