‘The Miniaturist’ by Jessie Burton
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton is a book that almost defies explanation. At the end of it, I closed the book, leaned back, and felt utter blankness. This was followed closely by confusion. And then slight annoyance. I give you: the Four Stages of Reading The Miniaturist.
Stage One: Intrigue
The Miniaturist starts off strong, opening on Amsterdam in 1686 with our heroine, the newly-married Nella Brandt, arriving at her new husband’s home and attempting to fit in with her new family. The house is peopled with mysterious figures, none terribly welcoming, including her husband, Johannes. Among his unexplained acts is the gift of a miniature model of the house to Nella. For reasons also unexplained, she is then expected to fill the tiny house, which causes her to seek out the titular miniaturist.
Stage Two: Whiplash
The Miniaturist is many things, none of them meshing terribly well together. It seems to aspire to be a female companion to David Liss’ The Coffee Trader—an excellent book dealing with a similar moment in Dutch history from a male perspective—while borrowing some mood from The Night Circus and a taste for the historically saucy from Philippa Gregory and Sarah Waters. The combination could have been excellent if only Burton would stick to the story of new-to-the-big-city Nella and the mysterious miniaturist who seems to know her and her new life all too well.
However, about halfway through the book, readers are dealt a twist that is so wholly unexpected, unexplained, and seemingly irrelevant to the plot Burton was building towards in the first half that you get literary whiplash. The second half of the book attempts to reconcile the first half with this sudden development. Success is limited at best.
Stage Three: Confusion
Okay, so you’ve mentally dealt with the big plot twist and are gamely going along with whatever Burton is trying to do (still as unclear of most of the characters’ personalities) when WHAM another plot twist! And then WHAM again, another one. And then BANG another—what the what is happening?! There is hardly time to process, let alone deal with, each of these successive, huge surprises in the latter half of The Miniaturist, so that you reach the end of the book feeling somewhat exhausted and confused. Particularly since, in the midst of all these shocks and twists, the (titular, I’d like to emphasize) miniaturist and the whole (possibly magical) miniature house plotline is mostly forgotten. What is happening?!
Stage Four: Annoyance
Okay, so the book is now over and you’re left so very, very confused and a little hurt. The Miniaturist had such promise, but became so bogged down in soap opera-worthy histrionics and interpersonal disasters (most of which are complete surprises) that disappointment and annoyance were my prevailing emotions upon finishing it.
Indeed, in talking it over with a friend after finishing, I almost felt I must have missed something. The second half was just too puzzling and disjointed. Surely I was missing something. But I took another look and, short of some insanely broad metaphor likening the miniaturist to the all-seeing eyes of God a la my 11th grade English teacher and The Great Gatsby, I don’t think I missed anything. I think it was just a total mess.
Sorry to rant, but I was just so disappointed in this book. I was promised magical realism and Dutch Golden Age history from a female perspective and ended up with little better than melodrama. What a letdown.