I thought that, having actually visited Amsterdam, I would get more from The Miniaturist. I would enjoy Jessie Burton’s descriptions of Amsterdam scenery as it would have been in the seventeenth century—and while most of Amsterdam has modernized, this is set within the old part of the city which has retained a lot of its historical elements. But that’s not what happened. I was disappointed by how little description Burton puts into the setting. You would be forgiven for having very little idea of what Amsterdam is like, aside from having canals, having finished this book.
The Miniaturist reminds me of a stage play. It has a small cast of characters and a very limited number of sets. The plot itself works as a series of acts and scenes, even, if it helps to think of it that way. Although Burton has obviously done her research and steeped the book in its historical setting, her sparse details mean that you really only have the characters’ actions and dialogue to go by. So you have to become invested in Nella, Cornelia, Marin, et al to get a lot of enjoyment out of this story.
That didn’t happen so much for me. Burton puts us in the position of empathizing with Nella, as a fish out of water in her new marriage and new household, which is terrorized and ruled by the enigmatic Marin. And I empathized—to a point. But Burton spends a lot of time trying to draw us into a house full of mysteries that don’t seem all that mysterious.
And then there’s the titular miniaturist, who was the biggest disappointment of all. Nella is supposedly obsessed with identifying and meeting this miniaturist so that she can confront her about all the strange, prophetic miniatures that Nella has received. But the miniaturist’s role gradually gets sidelined in favour of drama surrounding Johannes’ sexuality and relationships, and then a twist involving Marin that sets the story off in yet another direction. The mystery of the miniaturist returns as a bookend to the story, with Burton wrapping it up the same way she does everything else … rather unsatisfactorily.
I’m just not sure how to feel about this book. Each element considered individually should work. Nella’s discomfort over her new house and her uneasy relationships with her husband, his sister, and the maid should be genuinely fascinating. The conflict between Johannes and the Meermans should be riveting. And, of course, the mystery of the miniaturist should be captivating. But Burton never quite gets the ratio right.
The Miniaturist is a good attempt that falls somewhat short. Unlike similar historical fiction, I don’t even get the benefit of immersing myself in a richly described period setting either. While there are some positives here, none of them stand out against the messy blandness of the setting and plot.