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.
Dr.Don Tillman likes to be organised. He has a tight schedule, orchestrated to the exact minute – it takes ‘three minutes, twenty seconds’ to have a shower, unless he washes in hair, ‘in which case it takes an extra minute and twelve seconds’. (The extra time is because he has to leave the conditioner on for sixty seconds). He operates a Standardised Meal Plan (Lobster on Tuesdays – hence the cover pic) and changes to his routine flummox and unsettle him. As a geneticist, he finds scientific explanations reassuring and his literal interpretations of situations make life difficult for him, both at work and in his personal life. Despite his ordered existence, Don would like to be in a relationship and so he devises The Wife Project, a systematic approach to finding the perfect partner. Rosie doesn’t tick any of the right boxes, but she is the most beautiful woman in the world. Don’s dating programme results in a whole host of hilarious situations, as he tries to re-assess his priorities, address his social awkwardness and win Rosie’s hand.
There is a suggestion that Don might be an ‘Aspie’, (has Aspergers Syndrome), but the author readily admits that he didn’t carry out any research into autistic spectrum disorders at all. Don is quirky and Rosie is the perfect contrast.
This is a popular book at the moment and it’s easy to see why. It’s very, very funny – witty dialogue, slapstick situations. I read it as a Book Club choice and when we met to discuss it, we had just as much fun! We amused ourselves by firstly trying to cast the film using famous actors – we settled upon Colin Firth and Natalie Imbruglia as Don and Rosie. After a few more glasses of Prosecco, we had even more fun casting them using people we know. Cruel? Possibly. But if you know me, I bet you can’t help wondering whether I have you tagged as the next Don Tillman?!
The Sea Change follows the life stories of a mother (Violet) and her daughter (Alice), the former in WW2 Britain and the latter in 1970s India. Violet’s father is killed in a freak accident, and then she, her own mother and sister (Freda) are evacuated from the parsonage in Imber, Wiltshire, after the village is commandeered by the army as a training ground. There is a promise that the village will be returned to the villagers after the war. Violet is in love with a wanderer (Pete), but he is unable to commit to a stable lifestyle. 30 years later and on the other side of the world, Alice has been travelling through India when she becomes separated from her husband, James, following a devastating tsunami. Having survived the wave herself, she is faced with the traumatic task of combing the disaster area looking for him. The book alternates between the voices of Violet and Alice.
Recurrent themes throughout the novel are displacement, loss, betrayal and the sometimes overwhelming inability of families to communicate with one another. Secrets are revealed as the narratives of Alice and Violet converge towards the end of the book.
Online reviewers raved about this debut by its author, Joanna Rossiter. However, my feeling was that the book got lucky – it was picked as one of the 10 books for the ‘Richard & Judy Summer 2013 Book Club‘. Personally, although its well-written and seemingly well-researched (Imber is a real place and a tsunami hit Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu in 2004), the voices of Violet and Alice were identical. There was little or no differentiation between their tone, descriptive passages, dialogue etc, meaning I was frequently having to remind myself who was who!
Ideal for a long journey, or a holiday read, but not a book that is going to (sea) change your life. If you ask me in six months, I probably won’t remember a thing about it. Other than that it has an attractive cover photo. I always notice the covers.