Summary and book reviews of The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist

by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2014, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2015, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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About this Book

Book Summary

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam - a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion - a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant.

"There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed..."

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.

Mid-October 1686
The Herengracht canal, Amsterdam
Outside In

On the step of her new husband's house, Nella Oortman lifts and drops the dolphin knocker, embarrassed by the thud. No one comes, though she is expected. The time was prearranged and letters written, her mother's paper so thin compared with Brandt's expensive vellum. No, she thinks, this is not the best of greetings, given the blink of a marriage ceremony the month before—no garlands, no betrothal cup, no wedding bed. Nella places her small trunk and birdcage on the step. She knows she'll have to embellish this later for home, when she's found a way upstairs, a room, a desk.

Nella turns to the canal as bargemen's laughter rises up the opposite brickwork. A puny lad has skittled into a woman and her basket of fish, and a half-dead herring slithers down the wide front of the seller's skirt. The harsh cry of her country voice runs under Nella's skin. "Idiot! Idiot!" the woman yells....

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. How would you describe the sense of place in The Miniaturist, and how does the novel present seventeenth century Amsterdam?
  2. What does the gift of the cabinet house symbolize to Nella in terms of her marriage to Johannes and her own status?
  3. The Brandt household is full of secrets. Which made the biggest impression on you and why?
  4. Did your attitude to the characters remain consistent throughout the novel, or did your loyalties shift as you kept reading? Which character provoked the strongest reaction from you?
  5. How would you describe Nella's relationship with Marin? In what ways do they conflict, and are they more alike than they think?
  6. What do you think was the most significant cause of the Brandt's downfall?
  7. Do you think ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The novel pulses with anticipation as Nella gets closer to determining the truth behind the miniaturist’s gifts and the secrets in her own home, but the ending fades away without a satisfying wrap up. Despite this, the absorbing characters and convincing historical atmosphere make The Miniaturist worth the read.   (Reviewed by Sarah Sacha Dollacker).

Full Review Members Only (569 words).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Strangely enough, however, the central mystery, the miniaturist's uncanny knowledge of the future, is never solved, and the reader is left unsatisfied.

Booklist

It's a pleasure to discover an author who wields language in striking ways, and Burton's setting and story line are equally singular. In her enticing debut, set in 1680s Amsterdam, she counterbalances her mischievous premise with stark commentary on greed, hypocrisy, and prejudice.

Library Journal

Barton's writing is expressive and descriptive. While her prose is rich, it does not overwhelm the story, which takes a number of sharp turns as the truths about the Brandt family are revealed.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. With its oblique storytelling, crescendo of female empowerment and wrenching ending, this novel establishes Burton as a fresh and impressive voice; book groups in particular will relish it.

The Guardian (UK)

A fabulously gripping read that will appeal to fans of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch, but Burton is a genuinely new voice with her visceral take on sex, race and class...

Author Blurb S.J. Watson, author of Before I Go To Sleep
The Miniaturist is that rarest of things - beautifully written, yet also a compelling page-turner. It's haunting, magical, and full of surprises, the kind of book that reminds you why you fell in love with reading.

Reader Reviews

Cloggie Downunder

a brilliant read
The Miniaturist is the first novel by British author, Jessie Burton. Amsterdam in the late 1680s is a prosperous place for merchants of the VOC (Dutch East India Company). When eighteen-year-old Petronella Oortman, newly married to wealthy merchant, ...   Read More

JudithG

Too Much for a Small House
Amsterdam, in the late 17th century, is a city of hidden opulence and religious repression. Eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman enters a prosperous, but sham marriage, with the merchant Johannes Brandt. When her husband presents her with a replica ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Tiny World of Cabinet Houses

Like Nella in The Miniaturist, the real Petronella Oortman ordered a cabinet house to be made in 1686 to the exact scale of her own home. It can still be seen today in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Petronella's cabinet house was elaborate, gilded with silver and inlaid with tortoise shell, but this was not a unique purchase for a woman of her time.

Petronella Oortman's cabinet houseBoth wealthy men and women in 17th century Amsterdam kept cabinets full of exquisite trinkets to celebrate their status. Men's cabinets were usually called curiosity or wonder cabinets. They displayed items from anywhere in the world the Dutch traded. Women's cabinets were oversized dollhouses, but were certainly not toys. While a man's cabinet exhibited the bounty of Amsterdam...

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