Nella is an eighteen-year-old girl whose family have fallen on difficult financial times since the death of her father and a few months earlier she was married to a merchant, Johannes. It is set in the late seventeenth century and as the book opens she is moving to join his household in Amsterdam.
The house is currently being run by Johannes’ sister, Marin, who doesn’t welcome the intrusion by her brother’s new wife and Nella finds herself the owner of an empty dolls’ house and some money with which to furnish it as a means of filling her time.
The Miniaturist is incredibly well researched. The author has obviously gone to great lengths to drop in little details about life in seventeenth century Amsterdam and her care and attention really show. There are some scenes that are so detailed and evocative that you really feel as though you were there.
The writing is also very good. It is incredibly detailed and descriptive and it’s easy to lose yourself in it. It manages to be wordy and interesting whilst remaining accessible and not at all up-its-own-bum. Which is always a good thing.
The plot, for me, felt a little slow. There were a couple of really exciting bits, but the remainder of the book dragged somewhat. There were a lot of domestic scenes, as well as scenes that probably could have been shortened and had the same impact. I could have done with less of Nella wandering about the house and more of her actually doing something a bit more interesting instead. I get that women didn’t have many chances or opportunities in those days, but I think the author was trying to portray Nella as ahead of her time (going by her attitudes to certain things - see below) so it would have been good to see her doing something, anything, with her time.
I was also very frustrated that the mystery surrounding the miniaturist was never resolved. Who was she? Was she psychic? Or was she just a snoop? In some respects this felt like two separate stories - a narrative on minority groups in seventeenth century Amsterdam on one hand, and a psychic/fantasy mystery on the other. Both were interesting enough, but I wished the mystery part had been wrapped up.
While I liked the characters well enough, and some of the descriptions were very detailed, I didn’t find them entirely believable. I thought that Nella was awfully self-assured in some respects but painfully doormat-ish in others. She seems able to stand up for herself in some ways, but sometimes she seems to, I don’t know, just not bother?
***Spoiler Alert!*** I also found it fairly unbelievable how quickly she accepted Johannes’ homosexuality and Marin’s mixed-race, out-of-wedlock baby. In these more enlightened times these things aren’t even things, and this is good and progress, but in the time the book was set, homosexuality was a sin punishable by death and mixed race relationships were incredibly taboo. I could have accepted Nella’s attitude if perhaps she was an old lady, who had been around the block a few times, lived all over the world and seen a lot of things. But Nella was a naive young girl from the countryside. To me, her attitude just didn’t ring true.
Marin was a mixed bag. I got a good sense of who she was and I loved her hypocrisy, but I couldn’t work out whether she liked or loathed Nella. She really seemed to blow unpredictably hot and cold. Otto’s position both in the household and in society was really interesting, but I don’t think enough was made of it. He just seemed to hover in the background.
It felt like the author was trying to introduce too many issues: racism, homosexuality, women’s rights, but none of them are fully explored or satisfyingly concluded. I would have been happier if the author had just stuck to one issue and written about it in a lot of detail.
My star rating isn’t based on how good or worthy this book is, or how much I think other people will enjoy it, but purely on how much I enjoyed it. Three stars is not a bad score and I can totally see how other people would think this book is amazing, but personally I prefer books that move faster and tie off all their loose ends.