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Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, Canada
My virtue is that I say what I think, my vice that what I think doesn't amount to much.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Miniaturist

In the 17th century, dolls' houses were not toys; they were a hobby, the equivalent for women of the collection cabinets kept by men - Rijksmuseum
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton is set in 1686 Amsterdam. Eighteen year old Petronella Oortman (Nella) arrives in the city following an arranged marriage to Johannes, a wealthy trader who is much
older than she. Nella is a farm girl whose father has recently passed away leaving the family in tightened financial straits. She is disappointed at her husband's emotional detachment and physical distance and her attempts to initiate a closer relationship with him are rebuffed. His sister, Marin, lives with them and rules the house with an iron fist. Two servants are the other occupants of the canal house. We learn that Johannes had taken both Cornelia and Otto into his employ to rescue them from separate dire circumstances. Nella feels lonely and adrift and her attempts to take on the role of mistress of the house fall flat. As a wedding gift Johannes buys his young wife an expensive and elaborate dollhouse that is a cabinet-sized replica of their own home and encourages her to furnish it. Nella, believing Johannes is treating her like a child, decides to fill the house with items that will be a subtle affront to him. The mysterious miniaturist Nella employs to make the furniture seems to know more about the household than she does and, unbidden, continues to create puzzling pieces even after Nella hs told her to stop. The little house soon holds as many secrets as the larger household.
I read this novel on a trip to Amsterdam because I planned to see the 17th century dollhouses at the Rijksmuseum. It moves along at a very slow pace in the beginning and I nearly set it aside but the story suddenly ramps up. The star of The Miniaturist is Amsterdam in its Golden Age. Unfortunately the characters are anachronistic; it is impossible to imagine the socially progressive Nella existing in Amsterdam at that period of time. The rapid escalation of the relationship of Johannes and Nella from stone cold to deep and enduring friendship is also unbelievable. Those who prefer to have the loose ends tied up at the end of a story will likely be disappointed because the central mystery is unresolved. It is not a great work of fiction but it created a backdrop for my own experience of the city so I enjoyed it.

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