Written by Jessie Burton
Review by Jarad Johnson
Some people want to visit Paris. Others London or Spain. I myself would like to go to Amsterdam. So, when I saw that this book was based in Amsterdam, I immediately picked it up; however, this book is set in seventeenth century, not exactly the Amsterdam I’m familiar with…or would like to become acquainted with. Instead of the liberal, accepting city that exists today, the Amsterdam of this book is governed by an oppressive, puritanical religious code. It is a city where neighbors keep a watchful eye on each other, and where homosexuals are drowned at the pier. As we know, even in the most pious societies, there are those who break the rules. This is a book about rebels, my favorite kinds of people. It’s a book full of secrets, lies and betrayal.
The book gets off to a slow start – not necessarily a bad thing – but in this case it lagged like a worn-out record player, longer than I would have liked. It centers around a young woman named Petronella, Nella for short. She marries an older wealthier man who provides an escape from her family’s crumbling estate. She arrives at her new home and is greeted by her husband’s sister, an abrasive woman who keeps the house on a tight leash. She quickly discovers that she will not be living her fantasy life. She dreamed of a loving husband and a glamorous, happy lifestyle in Amsterdam, but reality doesn’t match up. Life gets complicated.
The Miniaturist of the title is one of the most interesting characters in the book, although I’m not sure whether I like her or not. She doesn’t make a lot of appearances, nor does she have much dialogue throughout, but somehow drives the story. She first comes onto the scene when Nella’s husband buys her a cabinet, a miniature of their own house. When Nella places an order for some miniature figurines, she gets more than she paid for. The Miniaturist seems to have an uncanny insight into her world, sending miniatures that predict events that happen in Nella’s life with astonishing detail. Nella doesn’t particularly like the gift, but she becomes obsessed with its, and the Miniaturist’s accuracy.
Great cities are often characters in their own right in novels, and that was the case here. The city has an oppressive feel. One of my favorite professors pointed out last year that the root word of oppress is, “press.” The city’s atmosphere literally feels like it’s pressing down on its citizens. Or perhaps it’s the citizens self-righteousness that is pressing on the city. In either case, the whole feel of the city is one of restraint. Everyone is watching everyone for signs of sin or deviation from religious dogma. This is what I imagine being a Puritan was like. It reminds me of a corset, which was worn to form a woman into the desired shape but also to restrain. A societal corset, like the real ones, must have been suffocating. Of course, no matter how hard one tries to conform to the ideal, it never works. Everyone has the things that make them different, and no one, no matter how pious, is without imperfection. Embracing difference and diversity as a strength rather than a weakness seems a far better and healthier option to me.
Overall, I neither loved nor seriously disliked this book. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. Parts of the book were compelling, but it didn’t come together for me on the whole. There were long drawn out periods of plot development that were drawn to a hasty close. Overall the chickens give it three out of five eggs.
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He recently developed an interest (some might say obsession) with gardening. Jarad is an English major with a concentration in literature. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!