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http://www.dallasnews.com/entertainment/books/20140830-fiction-review-the-miniaturist-by-jessie-burton.ece

By

The Dallas Morning News Special Contributor

Published: 30 August 2014 02:05 PM

Jessie Burton’s debut novel, The Miniaturist, begins like many a Gothic mystery before it: An 18-year-old virgin arrives in a strange place, on the doorstep of a great house where she has been invited but does not feel welcomed.

However, the time is not the 19th century, and the place is not a British lord’s brooding manor on the moor. Instead, it’s the autumn of 1686 in Amsterdam, a city then in its Golden Age and a powerful center of world trade.

The Miniaturist is set in much the same world as Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling Girl With a Pearl Earring, a story placed two decades earlier in another 17th-century Dutch city, Delft. But Johannes Brandt, the man at the center of The Miniaturist, is even more of a mystery than the Johannes Vermeer of Chevalier’s story.

When The Miniaturist begins, no Gothic courtship awaits us, for Johannes already has legally married Petronella “Nella” Oortman, a girl from an ancient but impoverished family in another town. Johannes is 20 years Nella’s senior, “a true Methuselah” in her opinion. Still, he’s a wealthy merchant in Amsterdam, a supremely eligible bachelor and even reasonably handsome, making him quite the catch in a world where marriage is the only real option for a Dutch girl of good family.

So the marriage is accomplished, but it has yet to be consummated. Nella arrives in Amsterdam on the Brandts’ second-best barge, alone but for her beloved pet, a little green bird in a cage. The Brandts’ nine-room house, on the prestigious Herengracht canal, contains no husband to greet Nella. Instead, she is met by her haughty sister-in-law, Marin, a saucy maidservant named Cornelia and Johannes’ manservant, Otto — he is a former slave and the first African Nella has ever seen.

When Johannes finally appears, he is kind to Nella, telling her that she has nothing to fear from him. But he’s in no noticeable hurry to bed his young bride. He is an important man, a shrewd, bold merchant sailor whose business might as well be his mistress. In this, Johannes seems not so different from other Amsterdammers, devout Protestants who preach humility but prize wealth and consider business the lifeblood of the city. It’s a place where Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel would fit right in.

Johannes’ wedding gift to Nella is a huge cabinet containing a sort of dollhouse, an amazing miniature version of their own house. “The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed,” Burton writes. Marin is horrified that her brother has spent 3,000 guilders on it; Nella, while touched by Johannes’ generosity, is perplexed.

Back in her hometown, “Nella had known children who’d been given cabinet houses, but none so grand as this. … Her heart sinks. I am too old for this, she thinks.” The cabinet house, meant for a child to practice housekeeping, “is a monument to her powerlessness, her arrested womanhood. It’s your house, her husband had said, but who can live in tiny rooms, these nine dead ends? What sort of man buys a gift like this, however majestic its casing, however beautifully made?”

Johannes is never cruel, but Nella “wants love,” as her mother used to say mockingly. “She wants the peaches and the cream.” Lacking the lagniappe of romance, Nella becomes obsessed with her cabinet house, ordering tiny accessories and furnishings from the only miniaturist in Amsterdam. Though this mysterious craftsman avoids meeting her, Nella is both enchanted and mystified by the exquisitely worked objects that arrive in each delivery from the miniaturist.

Who is the Kalverstraat artisan who knows every secret of the Brandt household? More importantly, how will those secrets be exposed? For when they are, they tear the Brandts’ lives apart as surely as if the Zuiderzee had once again rushed in and flooded their world.

In The Miniaturist, Burton uses a historical object — the real Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum — as the springboard for a fantastically spun tale of love and mystery. It’s a story that astutely reflects our own age’s obsessions and prejudices, and it’s one not to be missed.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas.

books@dallasnews.com

The Miniaturist

Jessie Burton

(Ecco, $26.99)

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