Thursday, January 18, 2018
Books

Review: Jessie Burton's 'Miniaturist' a microcosm of mystery

Bestselling novels inspired by 17th century Dutch works of art are getting to be a hot literary subgenre. First came Tracy Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring, then Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. And now Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist, a debut novel that sparked an 11-publisher bidding war, is being published in 30 countries and has filmmakers sparring over movie rights.

The inspirational artwork this time is a 17th century dollhouse owned by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam — not a child's toy but an intricately detailed replica of one of the sumptuous townhouses that lined the city's system of canals, many of them still occupied today, centuries after they were built.

The "cabinet house" was commissioned in 1686 by Petronella Oortman, who owned the house it was modeled on and paid as much for the miniature as a full-sized townhouse would have cost, furnishing it with custom-made items such as miniscule porcelain dishes from China, tiny oil paintings by noted artists and hand-carved, elf-sized furniture.

Burton was a British actor with a less than stellar career when she saw the cabinet house during a visit to Amsterdam in 2009. Struck by its microcosm of domestic life, she spent several years writing this book. The results were a historical novel as richly detailed and as claustrophobic as one of those townhouses — and a six-figure book deal for Burton.

Little is known of the historical Petronella Oortman, but Burton borrows her name for the book's main character. Raised in a small town in a family with a respectable name but little money, Nella at age 18 enters into an arranged marriage with an Amsterdam merchant twice her age, a not uncommon circumstance for the times.

Coming from a warm upbringing, Nella is unprepared for her new home. At first glance, her husband, Johannes Brandt, seems as if he might be the hero of a stock romance — he's fabulously wealthy, urbane and dashing, even a bit piratical, as befits a man whose business requires global travel. But he remains aloof from his new bride — he treats her with courtesy, but he's far more demonstrative with his dogs, Dhana and Rezeki, a beloved pair of whippets.

Johannes is rarely home, leaving Nella to the untender mercies of his sister, Marin. A bright but harsh woman, unmarried despite her family's fortune, Marin runs the household as if it were a business — and tries to tell her brother how to run his business, not a role open to women at the time.

Nella gets a warmer reception from the servants: Cornelia, a Dutch girl about her own age, and Otto, a black man whom Johannes bought from a slave ship while in Africa and brought to Amsterdam, where his skin makes him quite the curiosity, to be his manservant.

But the house on Herengracht Canal is one of whispers and closed doors, and Nella is left mostly alone to fret over why her marriage is unconsummated. Johannes does make one tender gesture, though: As a wildly expensive wedding gift, he gives her the cabinet house and permission to spend whatever she wants to furnish it (much to the guilder-pinching Marin's disgust).

In a business directory, Nella finds a "miniaturist" who will create to order the furnishings for cabinet houses like hers. She communicates by letter, never meeting with the miniaturist, and the first objects she receives delight her with their expert craftsmanship. A subsequent order, though, arrives with not only the items she requested, such as a lute and a wedding cup, but also others: a pair of chairs that are perfect copies of two in her parlor, a baby's cradle and, most disturbingly, two tiny dogs, exact and lifelike copies of Dhana and Rezeki.

"Someone has peered into Nella's life and thrown her off-center," Burton writes. But Nella's efforts to find the miniaturist and divine his "unreachable purpose" are no more fruitful than her efforts to reach her husband's heart — although mysterious little objects continue to arrive.

The story Nella begins to decipher from them and from other mysterious objects, such as a passionate love note hidden in Marin's room, grows more ominous by the day. She comes to realize that she has married into a family with immense power and wealth — Amsterdam was then at its height as a colonial power and merchant to the world, and all those extravagant townhouses and Old Master paintings were the conspicuous consumption of its 1 percent — yet even they can find themselves in peril when privilege collides with puritanism.

"Founded on risk," Burton writes, "Amsterdam now craves certainty, a neat passage through life, guarding the comfort of its money with dull obedience." For the city's rich, indulgence in feasts and fine wardrobes is expected, but indulgence in other sins can prove lethal in a society ruled by its religion.

The Miniaturist is an impressive debut, though not a perfect historical novel. In particular, Nella, although an engaging character, seems perhaps too sophisticated, too modern for her era and background. But Burton has created a world that, like the cabinet house, draws us in until we feel the dread and mystery and wonder that surround Nella.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

 
Comments
‘Year in Provence’ author Peter Mayle dies at 78

‘Year in Provence’ author Peter Mayle dies at 78

Peter Mayle, whose international bestseller A Year in Provence sent countless tourists to the vineyards and lavender fields of Southern France, has died.In an email, Mr. Mayle’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, reported that he died Thursday in a hospital...
Updated: 7 hours ago

Events: Bob Woodward to speak at Mahaffey

Book TalkAuthor and journalist Roy Peter Clark (Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer) will lead a workshop, "How to Read Like a Writer," at 2 p.m. Jan. 21 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Tickets $5.Bob Woodward ...
Published: 01/18/18
Notable: Books from those countries

Notable: Books from those countries

NotableBooks from those countriesHere are books by immigrants from some of the countries recently disparaged by the president. Americanah (Anchor) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a brilliant novel set in this country and in the author’s native Nigeria,...
Published: 01/18/18
Review: Tim Dorsey’s ‘The Pope of Palm Beach’ reveals a sweeter side of Serge Storms

Review: Tim Dorsey’s ‘The Pope of Palm Beach’ reveals a sweeter side of Serge Storms

It’s an odd thing to say about a book in the Serge Storms series, but The Pope of Palm Beach is really kind of sweet.Serge might not want to hear that. He does, after all, kill people, in highly creative ways, when he’s not in manic pursuit of his pa...
Published: 01/18/18
‘Fire and Fury’ burns up bestseller lists

‘Fire and Fury’ burns up bestseller lists

When author Michael Wolff was interviewed on the Today show about his book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Savannah Guthrie asked him how he felt about President Donald Trump’s attacks on it. Wolff responded, "Where do I send the box of ...
Published: 01/17/18

Events: Writers in Paradise features Banks, Lippman, more

Book TalkThe Writers in Paradise evening readings continue this week. All readings will take place in the Miller Auditorium at Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Books will be available for purchase on site. All readings are free and o...
Published: 01/11/18
Notable: Books on Trump, one year in

Notable: Books on Trump, one year in

NotableOne year inWith the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration approaching, here are new books about him. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (Henry Holt) by Michael Wolff is the incendiary look at the administration that provoke...
Published: 01/11/18
Andre Dubus III reads to ‘sink more deeply’ into the human condition

Andre Dubus III reads to ‘sink more deeply’ into the human condition

NightstandAndre Dubus IIIEckerd College’s Writers in Paradise conference takes place this week, and one of the returning faculty members is Andre Dubus III. Dubus is the author of six books, including Bluesman, Townie and two novels turned films, The...
Published: 01/11/18
Steph Post’s Florida noir ‘Walk in the Fire’ a sizzling sequel to ‘Lightwood’

Steph Post’s Florida noir ‘Walk in the Fire’ a sizzling sequel to ‘Lightwood’

In Steph Post’s new novel, Walk in the Fire, there’s a young aspiring criminal with a gift for astute observation. Asked to describe the tiny Central Florida town of Silas, where much of the book takes place, he says, "You drive through and it’s like...
Published: 01/11/18
Former Times columnist Klinkenberg named Florida Folk Heritage Award winner

Former Times columnist Klinkenberg named Florida Folk Heritage Award winner

Raise a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and toast former Tampa Bay Times columnist Jeff Klinkenberg. This week, he was announced as one of three 2018 winners of the Florida Folk Heritage Awards.The awards honor outstanding folk artists and folk ...
Published: 01/10/18