Bags of Halloween candy already bought and eaten? Check. (Milky Ways get me every time. Followed in short order by 100 Grands and Twix.) If you need something else to satisfy your sweet tooth – and spook you a little, too – check out hot new read The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, it’s a mashup of psychological thriller, historical fiction, and “women’s fiction” – emotional needs front and center – and it’s frightfully fun!
The Miniaturist tells the story of young bride Petronella Oortman, wed at age eighteen to a man twenty years her senior, due to her family’s steeply declining fortune. She moves from their falling-down countryside estate to her merchant husband’s imposing home in Amsterdam, where she is met by his stern sister, Marin – not her new husband. From the moment of her arrival, Nella can tell that all is not right in this home. Her husband is frequently absent and unaccounted for, and she can only yearn to know this gorgeous but icy man. Marin runs the home and even has a major hand in her brother’s business; Nella realizes her power in the home is nothing compared to that of her sister-in-law. A mouthy servant named Cornelia and a quiet and mysterious African manservant complete the household.
Shortly after Nella arrives, her husband presents her with a grand and exorbitantly expensive wedding gift, a cabinet-sized replica of their home. Nella is to amuse herself by furnishing it as she pleases, and she contacts a strange and elusive “Miniaturist” among the tradespeople in the city to commission the miniature furniture and dolls. Things really get creepy when the Miniaturist starts sending tiny, exact replicas of furniture, people, and pets that Nella has not ordered bearing details that only an intimate member of the household would know. As bad fortune begins to afflict various members of the household, and unpleasant truths emerge, Nella begins to wonder if the Miniaturist is revealing impending doom to her – or actually causing it.
A few things bothered me here and there in this novel. Too many smells reminded me of scented candles sold at Kroger and clearly targeted at women. (I’ve noticed this in other “women’s fiction.”) Nella overhears one too many conversations, propelling the plot along a bit too conveniently at times. The evil minister Pellicorne seems more caricature than real.
These are small complaints compared to all the things Jessie Burton gets right. She’s brilliant on pacing and suspense, and often very deft in her descriptions. The faithful dog Rezeki peers up at Nella “before slinking low across the tiles. The animal moves like spilled liquid, masterless, a chess piece rolling out of place.” I enjoyed learning quite a bit about the various guilds and the system of justice in late 17th century Amsterdam. You could read this book for the history alone! Better yet – read it to get your spooky on.