Note: Spoilers ahead!
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton was an enthralling and captivating story to read. At first, the book sets out as though it will be a coming of age tale, of a young woman finding her feet and strength in a place away from home, and while in some ways, it is, it is so much more than that.
Rooted in the strength of a woman and the power women have beating in their hearts, the tale revolves around an eighteen-year-old woman, who has just married a merchant, Johannes Brandt. Her name is Petronella, or otherwise known as Nella who has never known the comfort of wealth and luxury, but the warmth of family and home, before moving from the Dutch countryside to the Golden Bend in Amsterdam.
At first, her time in her new home is awful and cold, Johannes barely speaks to her, though when he does, he is kind but always hurried and disappears quite quickly. His sister, Marin who runs the household, is a headstrong and determined woman, and she advises her brother on many of his enquiries, helping him find sellers and buyers for their business.
Clearly, the women in this household are not kept back from the world of business, despite this novel being set in the 1600’s. In her new home, she meets Cornelia and Otto, both of them, servants, who come from poor backgrounds and form a friendship that Nella immediately takes note of. Otto, is a black man, living in a time where he would have been treated like an animal, or worse, but with the Brandt family, he is never looked down upon, never hurt, never bullied. Instead, he is a close friend of Johannes. Nella does not have a great relationship with any of them to begin with, especially when they make her keep her parakeet, Peebo, in the kitchen, away from her.
However, as time moves on, Nella finds her footing and shines, her intelligence and strength is evident to all of those around her, especially Johannes, who looks upon her with pride and equality. The book notes on the social status of the wealthy and poor, between men and women in this time period, and while Nella faces the restrictions and constrains of her society, she is never locked under key by her husband.
The book’s story really picks up when she receives a gift from her husband, a dollhouse. What is striking about it, is that it looks like her own and soon enough, she begins receiving pieces to go with the house, by the ever-elusive miniaturist. The furnishings are so incredibly life like, that is worries Nella, not only that, but that they are of all the people she knows and lives with, down to her pet and to their facial features.
Life like, but smaller in size, Nella keeps them in her dollhouse, unnerved and enchanted by their beauty, she reluctantly accepts more of the miniaturist’s gifts. She never meets her mysterious miniaturist and though she does find out her name and who her father was, in the old, rickety house she once lived in, her strange gift giver never shows after the very sad ending of Nella’s tale.
In turn, the dolls begin to reveal hidden things to Nella, secrets that aren’t spoken of. Tales and lies that become clear to Nella as she grows into herself. She discovers her husband’s secret, why he is so distant from her. He loves her, but as a friend as she comes to see him as, holding his withered hand in the last place he is seen alive. Marin becomes a friend, somewhat to Nella, until her unfortunate end, bloody, messy and terribly sad. Cornelia opens up to Nella as does Otto before and after his disappearance, and the house that was once divided and tense, comes together, when the worst happens.
Plagued with the events that have happened in the house, Nella destroys the dollhouse. The beautiful Jack Phillips who turned out to be a villain and broken soul in his own right, the man who delivered her parcels was not only an actor, he was cruel and harsh, he lied and caused the untimely death of his once, powerful, generous lover. And as Nella watches her husband return to the sea, a block of stone on his back, she is hardened by life and death itself.
In a society that would not accept a woman’s word or a gay man’s love, she turns away and promises to do her best by the small infant Otto holds in his hands at the end of the tale.
For the Brandts are loyal and protective, if nothing else.