Of dollhouses and books

The Miniaturist (review)
Jessie Burton
Ecco

When I was growing up I had a cardboard doll house that was over four feet tall—it was identical to this one.

You’d think, cardboard—ugh. But it was incredibly sturdy and I treated it like the prized possession it was. The original house came with some cardboard furnishings, but I didn’t use those for long because my nana gifted me Petite Princess dollhouse furniture that was incredible. The sofa had real satin cushions, the fireplace came with teeny logs and brass andirons, the antique-style phone had a little thread cord, the brocade chair had a winged back. Gorgeous.Rummer

I moved nearly every year as a child and each move brought a new house, new school, new friends—but that doll house was a constant. I sat for hours and hours in front of it creating a world within my world—as any good reader would do. (And any book that involved dollhouses was also a sure hit; I especially like stories by Rummer Godden like Little Plum, The Doll’s House, Holly and Ivy–now all included in a more recent paperback titled The Fairy Doll.)

So the hook for me to read Jessie Burton’s novel The Miniaturist was the miniatures. But the fascinating story about sixteenth century Amsterdam kept me reading long into the night. Nella Oortman arrives in the city after a rather hasty marriage to a wealthy merchant in the Dutch East India Company. Johannes Brandt was older and kept a surprising distance from his beautiful young wife. Nella is confused—her mother had prepared her for her wedding night, she dreamed of the babies to come … but Johannes takes no interest in Nella as a wife. Instead, she is left alone to navigate her relationship with her controlling sister-in-law Marin while Johannes spends long hours working and traveling.

MiniAs something of a consolation prize, he has an incredible wedding present made to keep Nella occupied: a tall cabinet re-made into a replica of their home. Along with what is essentially a doll’s house, Johannes provides Nella with a line of credit so she can furnish it. Nella hires a miniaturist and commissions a few pieces–a betrothal cup, lute, and marzipan, but is chilled when the unknown craftsman includes extra items that are miniature duplicates of objects in their home.

Nella becomes even more frightened when the miniaturist continues to send items that seem to indicate he (or she) knows more about the Brandt household than is prudent; Nella gradually learns that certain secrets might best remain hidden. And as Nella begins to discover more about the Brandt family and their magnificent house, she begins to understand her own strength and purpose, as well.

The Miniaturist is a peek inside a time and place I knew little about and a cautionary—yet hopeful—tale about a young woman coming into her own.

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