The Miniaturist – Not quite the rarest of things

I don’t mean to start any book reviews in a negative way, but..

I have to say I usually avoid any book that’s emblazoned with “Number One Bestseller”. I don’t know why, but to me it’s the same when the critics absolutely adore a film. They’re just no good, hyped up for the masses – give me a vilified book any day. However, I thought I might give The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton a read.

I have to say I judged the book by the cover, and the premise of the supernatural in 17th Century Amsterdam sounded right up my street. How wrong could I be? Apparently quite wrong.

As a historical novel the book has an interesting setting, the merchant class of Amsterdam; something I know nothing about and I hoped I might be sucked right into that time. A young country girl called Nella has been recently married to Johannes (a successful and world travelled trader). The book opens with her arrival at his house in Amsterdam. However, Johannes is elusive (i.e. just not there) and we meet very quickly the other cast of characters – Marin (her sister-in-law) and the servants Cornelia and Otto. Marin is a spinster and is very much in charge of the household, ruling with a rod of iron; whilst Cornelia and Otto are very much the servants – and in Otto’s case, a curiosity.

Nella soon realises this is a house full of secrets. She is offended when we finally meet Johannes and he presents her with a cabinet containing an exact replica of their house – she wants to be in charge of the house not a play one. Nella is also confused and puzzled when Johannes avoids all physical contact with her, and he seems to permanently hide in his study. Thankfully strange things begin to happen when she orders some miniatures to go in the house. She never meets the mysterious “miniaturist” who creates beautiful and intricate objects – but they begin to arrive unsolicited and seem to predict the future. Apparently this was the supernatural part of the story. The only and very brief part of the book.

Unfortunately this book didn’t say what it advertised on the tin.

The whole book felt a bit fluffy – overly researched history to the detriment of the characters, and even the supernatural plot becomes lost in the history. The characters didn’t feel believable, sometimes their voices would be exactly the same – regardless of their gender or social status. For a book that goes to great lengths to describe the differences in social status, this felt very grating. It read as if there were no social boundaries within the house – a classless bubble. One minute Nella would be very provincial and nervous, and the next she would become assertive and challenging without even a second thought. Random actions would happen in some scenes for no particular reason, and served no purpose to move the story on. Sometimes I thought the writer would drop something into a scene for no reason at all: ooo I fancy a bit of that, where can I squeeze it in? It felt that these actions were never questioned or ever heard of again. Important actions were either glossed over at speed, or overly drawn out. Which made no sense at all if you ask me.

Golly, the relationships: one minute Nella is so shocked and repulsed she takes to her bed for days; the next minute she accepts it and carry like nothing happened. Nella and Johannes’ relationship develops and matures despite them spending hardly any time together, often with Nella not having a clue about what’s occurring. Nella and Marin’s relationship just feels stilted and at times cruel. Other relationships develop despite there being any interaction between the characters. All very confusing -and ultimately infuriating.

I didn’t care about the plot. There, I’m glad I got that off my chest.

The pace was too slow or too fast at really odd moments, especially the end. The plot felt very clunky, and I guessed what would happen around page 100. The plot didn’t feel believable, and felt repetitive. Even ignoring the supernatural/miniaturist side-show (if you could find that part), the plot seemed anachronistic and unlikely.

I felt bored every time Nella set off for the miniaturist’s house because it was so obvious that something would happen to stop her reaching it, or if she did there would be no reply. There wasn’t any sense of anticipation.The twists were predictable. At points it felt like I was watching a naff, contrived soap-opera.

History was shoved in our faces at every point in the story, as if the author wants us to know that she is intelligent and did her research thoroughly – woo! I’ll stand up and give her a round of applause shall I? However that doesn’t stop her making the characters one-dimensional with modern sensibilities and language in 17th century Amsterdam. It all felt very pointless, and I would have had more fun reading an actual book about Amsterdam than all this malarkey.

I didn’t see the point of the miniaturist. Magic, the existence of the cabinet house and the miniaturist didn’t add anything to the story. Nella never makes any sense of it, and doesn’t learn anything from it. And neither do we.

Please tell me, am I missing the point?

The Knitty Gritty

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (ISBN 978-1-4472-5093-7) from Your Local Book Seller, Amazon  – of just support your local library!

Further reading: (and these are SO much better)

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger


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