Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Jessie Burton - The Miniaturist

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office—leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.
But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .
Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand—and fear—the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?
Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

Comment: I was given this book for my birthday back in September. I had an idea about it for I had read some things about the story, namely the blurb and a review here and there. I admit I wouldn't have bought it for myself on purpose because I had the impression this would be slightly... scholarly, meaning that the author would lean more towards fiction than romance in the content. I must say that, while my expectation was proven right, the story still surprised me by its negative aspects.

This is the story of Nella, a young woman who marries a much older man because he will provide for her and she will be able to achieve a status she wouldn't otherwise, besides being able to secure her financial safety.
However, from the moment she arrives from a quiet place in the country everything in her new life is a disappointment, and she can't see how she will be any happy or at least content with what is ahead of her if her husband is never close, her sister-in-law is an unbending strict woman and even the maid seems to covertly smirk at her.
This changes a bit when her husband offers her a miniature house, which happens to be a reproduction of their own house, so she can decorate it at will. At first Nella thinks it's a toy and that her husband mocked her but soon she realizes things are getting weirder, especially after the miniaturist responsible for the objects starts sending things she didn't ask for...

I had the idea this would be a fictional romance for the most part but it turned out it also had some mystery. Therefore, the author has done a lot of research and this book focuses on two main concepts: the fictional life of Nella and those around her (loosely based on real people according to the author's notes) and the mystery about her doll house, something only very rich people could afford to own back in the 17th century.

This book wasn't bad despite my saying I was surprised by its negative aspects. I liked how the author selected the information she wanted to expand in the fictional part and how many details about life in the Holland of the 17th century we are able to learn by reading this. It certainly wasn't a good time to live in if you were poor. Well, it never is, but nowadays one could at least have rights and freedom (except in certain countries/societies/etc.).
It was also interesting to read this from the POV of imagining women and their lack of means to become smarter, better considering how much they weren't allowed to do. It was nice to see Nella and her sister-in-law for the most part, as the main players in this book.

For me, the problem is mostly about what doesn't happen. Through the whole novel, we are bombarded by the mystery of the miniaturist and why he might be sending things to Nella without her request. The why is told to the reader at some point but how it was never clear. I do think there is a lot of explanations missing in this novel and that means the end of the book leaves too many things unsolved and that can be a little irritating.
There are also some plot situations that seem to occur only to suit a certain mood, a certain idea... and they don't seem to be well inserted so why are we focusing on them? If the aim is to turn this into something a little introspective in tone, I think it was a fail.

Another detail I disliked was how the whole story was so sad, so melancholic, so despairing and unfair. Fiction isn't only about bad things, I d say. If this was a non fiction book about this family I could accept it, but this is a novel, it should lead somewhere, it should go towards the goal of teaching something, of conveying a lesson if so...but I don't think this happened. I can udnestand the sequence in the narrative where we see why bad things happen, one after the other but... what was the point? So many disgraces... was it so that Nella's character could "grow up"? If so, I don't think it really mattered. So many interesting ideas not used well, or unused. What a pity, was what I thought.
Added to the sense the character of the miniaturist wasn't explained, the whole book felt like it missed the point, so I felt disappointed. Still, I admit it was easy to turn the pages.

All in all, this wasn't bad, there are many rich details to make the story alive, to make it easy fo us to imagine the scenes, the character's movements and descriptions but... so many things untold, unsolved and a path that only led to confusion and a missing HEA or, at least, a positive goal. It was also so unfair how some things were done, even if realistic for the time period. Still, a good enough story to pass the time...
Grade: 6/10

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