Jessie Burton’s debut novel ‘The Miniaturist’ has reached the Sunday Times No 1 Bestseller list twice, and was the Waterstones Book of the Year 2014. Surely it must be exceptionally brilliant? Well, meh. To be honest, the book left me distinctly underwhelmed. I’ve since had a look around t’Internet at other reviews and opinions and I am not alone. There is a prevailing view that the book promises but does not deliver; it starts off interestingly but peters out towards the end, leaving readers dissatisfied. I recommended the novel to a book group and hadn’t quite finished it when we came to discuss it, but my friends’ views tallied with most others.
It is 1686: Petronella (Nella) has been married off to a wealthy merchant and is sent away to his house in Amsterdam to begin married life. She finds herself in a rather unconventional household, living with her sister-in-law, Marin, and two servants. Soon after her arrival, Nella is presented with a dolls’ house as a wedding gift from her husband. She commissions some pieces for the house and is surprised by the miniaturist’s uncanny knack of capturing the likenesses of the people and objects within the young bride’s dwelling. Although not unkind to Nella, Johannes, her husband, does not seem keen to consummate the marriage and is often away from home. On a surprise visit to Johannes’ place of work, Nella discovers the reason for his aversion to intimacy. When Johannes’ secret is discovered by others, his life is put in danger and Nella’s strength is put to the test. Meanwhile, the enigmatic miniaturist remains hidden but continues to produce perceptive and prophetic replicas.
The storyline and setting are unusual, which is one of the charms of the book, giving some insight into the lives of early Dutch traders. Sugar had only just begun to be available and it is interesting to see how what we see as a commonplace ingredient was treated with such reverence. But these details were not enough to sustain my interest as I did (extremely unusually for me!) manage to guess the main plot twists. The relationships within the household are complex but ultimately unconvincing; I didn’t sympathise with the characters’ dilemnas.
Dolls’ houses actually freak me out. I can’t explain why, but I think it might be something to do with a now-forgotten experience during a visit to Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House at Windsor Castle when I was a child. I am not a fan of miniatures in real life and, sadly, Jessie Burton’s work failed to persuade me of their attraction.