Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

This is primarily a list of quibbles about The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. As much as I disliked it, I’m curious about the new TV miniseries because I’ve heard it addresses some of these issues. Every now and then a show works as a good editor.

The shortest possible summary of The Miniaturist is that 18-year-old Nella is sent to Amsterdam to marry Johannes, 39, in 1686. Marin, her sister-in-law, is obviously hiding something and is cold to her. Nella has little to do until she receives a model house as a wedding gift and begins ordering miniatures to fill it. When they arrive, they’re disturbingly accurate and accompanied by little notes. At the same time, Johannes’s trade business is stumbling, in part because he can’t/won’t move a large order of sugar. Tragedy ensues.

Nella initially feels out of her depth as a wife and is passive for most of the novel before taking on a little agency. Unfortunately, one of her biggest decisions comes at the cost of other characters. How is a reader supposed to believe Johannes ever became a successful trader when his completely inexperienced wife sells half of his immovable sugar in a single day? Maybe she’s brilliant, but this is the same woman who plans to pass an “illegitimate” child as her own after only being married a few months… how will that prevent gossip? Characters are either smart or short-sighted depending on which trait leads to more drama. Nella has a habit of figuring things out a step behind the reader and even a step behind the miniaturist, whose dolls are almost prophetic.

This next part is a spoiler—or would be, if anything came of it:
The titular miniaturist is a woman even though there are strict rules about women having their own trade at this time. That’s why she’s invisible and why she sends notes to Nella, but it doesn’t explain the quality of her work. While reading, I wondered if there was a supernatural element at play even though that was the easy/cheap answer. But how else could the miniatures fit Nella’s life so precisely? e.g., The dog she requests arrives with a tiny spot painted on its belly exactly like its real-life counterpart. When Nella walks through the miniaturist’s studio at the end of the novel she finds that she works for many, many women in Amsterdam. The work she did for Nella was already too fast and too precise so this raises more unanswerable questions. It would almost be better if there was some magic at play; as is, the miniaturist is a plot device instead of a character.

But this plot device was the only reason I kept reading!

To be honest, if this book hadn’t been on my summer queue last year I would have DNFd it after the prologue. The prologue is written in a bizarre, overwrought style that clashes with the rest of the novel. It shamelessly tries to build suspense by depicting a funeral and omitting the names of the deceased and attendees, but come on—this 402-page book is set in 1686. There’s a 0% chance the entire main cast will be alive at the end. People died of everything back then. Except from being stabbed in the chest, which is portrayed as survivable. What?

Overall: 2.3 (out of 5.0). The miniseries sets this story in the 1800s instead of the 1600s which, from my tenuous grasp of history, fits some of the themes/messages a little better. Maybe they also have something more about the miniaturist, but that’s a big ask. If you give this book a chance, I recommend you read past the prologue since it’s not representative (and won’t make sense until later). But don’t keep reading for info about the miniaturist! There’s no closure there.

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