Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Book review: The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

It’s a pleasure to discover an author who wields language in striking ways, and Burton’s setting and story line are equally singular. In her enticing debut, set in 1680s Amsterdam, she counterbalances her mischievous premise with stark commentary on greed, hypocrisy, and prejudice.

Already puzzled by the indifference of her new husband, merchant-trader Johannes Brandt, 18-year-old Nella feels insulted by his seemingly childish wedding gift: a pricey dollhouse whose tiny rooms replicate the decor and layout of their home. However, she grows intrigued when the furnishings she commissions from a miniaturist reveal uncannily prescient insight into their household.

Full of surprises and layers of secrets, the plot gathers suspense as Nella seeks answers from the enigmatic miniaturist and tension heightens between Johannes and a business associate over unsold sugar. While Nella’s determination and colorful observations are appealing, the inscrutability of her chilly sister-in-law, Marin, deepens the sense of mystery. The interactions between these strong characters and their spirited maid, Cornelia, make this refreshingly different historical novel a standout portrayal of the wide range of women’s ingenuity.

The Miniaturist will be published by Ecco in August ($26.99, hb, 416pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist Online on June 13th.  This is by necessity a short review, but if you want to read even more about the novel, including an interview with the author, it's the focus of Shelf Awareness' Maximum Shelf today.  Also be sure to check out the real Dolls' House of Petronella Oortman (which is the birth name of The Miniaturist's main character) at the Rijksmuseum site in the Netherlands.

7 comments:

  1. This sounds really good. As you say, this isn't the average or the usual sort of historical fiction.

    Love, C.

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    1. Anonymous3:02 PM

      And not the usual setting, although I have noticed more 17th century settings, Amsterdam or otherwise (think Vermeer, Rembrandt, tulips . . .)

      Sarah Other Librarian

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    2. This one has the attractions of the miniature dollhouse (which is very cool) and the mysterious happenings that occur within, but the 17th-c Amsterdam setting is harsh and repressive, esp. for anyone who doesn't conform. It's been getting so much attention, I believe, not just because of the intriguing storyline but also because it's an easy entree into historical fiction for those who don't normally read it. This isn't to say it reads modern (I didn't find that the case) but I don't recall any infodumps, and the author has a strong and memorable voice.

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  2. I put this one on my TBR list the first I heard of it and am really looking forward to it. I have had "America's Doll House: The Miniature World of Faith Bradford" on my list also for quite a while - fond memories of playing with my girlfriend's very deluxe dollhouse in the sixties.

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    1. I've never heard of that book so went to take a look - that house is seriously impressive! I had a dollhouse when I was growing up, but nothing that extensive. It was a blue and white saltbox colonial with six rooms, and the wallpaper was the same as in my real house (I used scraps that were left over). I'd put it back together and put it on display now, but my cats would have way too much fun with it.

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  3. I shall definitely be reading this one. Thank you for drawing my attention to it.

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    1. Hope you enjoy it too, Carol, and congrats on your own upcoming publication!

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