The Miniaturist  – ★★
The Miniaturist, “The Sunday Times Number One Bestseller”, has received much praise, but is all the hype justified? The original idea for the book came to the author in Amsterdam, where Burton first saw Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house at the the Rijksmuseum. In her fictional story set in the 1680s, eighteen-year old Nella comes to Amsterdam after her advantageous marriage to an older rich merchant Johannes Brandt. Nella finds out that Johannes lives in a house with his domineering sister Marin, and soon begins to question the security of her husband’s finances. When Johannes gifts Nella a miniature doll house, which is the exact replica of their own home, Nella does not hesitate to ask for services from an elusive miniaturist, leading to unpredictable turns of events. This atmospheric novel is perfectly readable, but it is also too simplistic and melodramatic. Even worse, despite some obvious hints, The Miniaturist does not put its main mystery about the miniaturist or the doll house (the cabinet) at the centre for the readers to uncover; the novel’s male characters are superficial; and its surprises – preposterous. The plot does not go anywhere or reveal anything of substance, and the actions of the characters are as nonsensical as the ending is unsatisfying.
The first surprising thing to note is that The Miniaturist is not about any miniaturist at all. That character is present in the novel, but hardly features at all – or definitely not enough to name the book after that character. This simple observation is only the beginning of a long list of what is wrong with this book. The Miniaturist is a deeply problematic novel which could only have been penned by a complete amateur-writer who has only superficial knowledge on how to write a plot or portray characters. However, I would like to begin this review with the only thing I liked about the book – the atmosphere and the setting. Jessie Burton describes Amsterdam quite beautifully, and there is this cosy feeling when you read some descriptions. “Founded on risk, Amsterdam now craves certainty, a neat passage through life, guarding the comfort of its money with dull obedience” [Burton, 2014: 2]. The author tells about wondrous houses along Amsterdam canals, and the language is transportive. “Outside her window, the canal is full of life. Boatmen call to one another about the winter nip in the air, on a far-off corner a bread-seller cries his wares, and two children holler with a hoop and stick.” [Burton, 2014: 58]. To describe one room, Burton writes “The room is full of smells. The strongest is of nutmeg, but there is also a sandalwood tang, and clove and pepper imbuing the very walls, such scents of heat and warming” [Burton, 2014: 51].
However, one of the problems is that that the simplistic plot makes little sense and is exasperating in its clichés and unoriginality. The Miniaturist starts almost along the lines of du Maurier’s Rebecca or James’s The Turn of the Screw, with the main heroine arriving to an eerie house where someone already conspires against her. There are a number of the so-called twists or surprises in the story, but Burton plays on familiar stereotypes and traditions associated with the Netherlands, such as tulips, and, what is even worse – seems to copy much from the novel by Deborah Moggach titled Tulip Fever . For example, in both novels, the heroines marry rich older merchants in Amsterdam to provide financial security for themselves and their families, and find their marriages being far from what they thought they would be. The well-known witty quote of The Miniaturist is “every woman is the architect of her own future”, but Burton actually takes it from the quote by the Roman politician Appius Claudius Caecus, which says “every man is the architect of his own fortune” (quisque faber suae fortunae).
By far, the biggest issue is that the story is totally devoid of any mystery. The title of the book and the references to the cabinet house in the novel suggest the presence of eerie and hidden knowledge to be uncovered in due time. There are such passages as “Nella considers her gift [the miniature doll house]. Her heart sinks” [2014: 49], and “as Nella stands before the exposed interior [of the doll house], it begins to make her uneasy” [2014: 48]. The author heightens the mystery surrounding the cabinet house – “the cabinet’s curtains have opened a new world, a strange world, a conundrum she wishes to solve” [2014: 168]. However, what is really unforgivable is that the story never really wants to delve into that aspect at all, despite all the references to Nella’s apprehension and her irrational pursuit of the miniaturist. The result is that all the references to the cabinet house and the miniaturist are needless to tell the story that Burton really tells, and it does not help that a lot in the story does not make the slightest sense, such as Nella’s assumption that the miniaturist is her friend.
The shallow characters in the novel also make the story less convincing. Perhaps, Burton portrayed Nella convincingly in a way we can sympathise with her position and Marin, Johannes’s sister, appears intriguing at times, but the presentation of male characters is too simplistic and often ludicrous. It is as though Burton did not think it necessary to spend any time on their development or provide any insight. We get to know Cornelia, the maid, but not so much Johannes, Otto, Johannes’s servant, or Franz Meermans. It would have been nice to know the story a little from the point of view of Johannes, since that character deserves greater insight to be given on him. In that way, the ending would have been more moving too.
Even Nella and her thoughts, feeling and actions are overly-sensationalised by the author, something which, perhaps, only a complete amateur will do writing their first novel at a very young age. The language is unremarkable and repetitive. “Nella looks”, “Nella leans further over” , “Nella considers” , “Nella looks” (again) , “Nella bends low” , etc. What Nella feels is probably on every next page, which points to the language devoid of ideas and imagination, “Nella feels their uncomfortable presence” , “Nella feels the sense of invasion” , “Nella feels a fleeting sense of gratitude” , “Nella feels someone stroke her forehead” , “Nella feels the burn of this unjust and awful scrutiny” , “Nella feels as if she has grown taller” , etc, etc. If not for the sexual references, I would have thought this story is for middle school or belongs to the young adult genre so simplistic the language and the story are.
The conclusion is that The Miniaturist is an interesting read, but it makes some grave amateur errors in plotting and design. The story is silly and has too many simplistic characters, leading to the conclusion that it at best can be described as a decent debut novel attempt. The novel’s story about the cabinet house and miniaturist is hardly present, let alone be convincing, and the author sensationalises and dramatises too much, resulting in a manipulative read, as well as in the nonsensical and preposterous conclusions and character actions. This, coupled with artificial dialogue lines and an unsatisfying ending, makes for a read which is regrettable.
Jessie Burton made her character Johannes some sort of a martyr who fights and dies for his beliefs, but the truth of the matter is that Johannes’s careless sexual actions and matrimonial cheating led to the heart-break, his wife’s downfall in the societal eyes, and resulted in the immense sorrow for everyone. Burton pushes a very modern message in her story with liberal values at the forefront (which is to be applauded), but Johannes’s portrayal as a good character is very problematic. He is the one who was responsible (together with Marin) for tricking Nella to marring him, knowing that she would never receive a husband’s true love from him and she also had no possibility to divorce him on reasonable grounds. He caged her willingly to him and the pretext was that she would be better off that way (a win-win situation). Nella then comes to love and respect her trickster and this emotional abuser, frankly speaking. This is definitely not the message of women empowerment girls want or need to read.