Saturday, January 3, 2015

Life in miniatures

My first read for 2015 arrived with a lot of hype riding on it. Unfortunately, Jessie Burton's debut novel, The Miniaturist, doesn't live up to it. It's entertaining, yes, but I got a feeling of want after turning the last page. And my immediate reaction was, "That's it?"

Burton's novel concerns itself with one Petronella Oortman, a 17-year-old who arrives in Amsterdan to join her husband, the wealthy Johannes Brandt, after their arranged marriage. Johannes doesn't have that much time for Nella, being a busy merchant trader that he is, and leaves her to the company of her spinster-ish sister, Marin Brandt.

Nella and Marin don't hit it off. Ah, the usual in-law rivalry. So what is Nella to do to while away her days of ennui? Apparently, nothing. Just go through with being a trophy wife. But then Johannes gifts her with a cabinet-sized replica of the Brandt home. Nella decides to hire the services of a mysterious miniaturist, who has an uncanny ability to produce miniatures that mimic what is happening in real-time in the Brandt household.

My first read for 2015
Who is this miniaturist? How come he or she somehow predicts events through the miniatures that he or she creates? When one of their dogs gets killed, for example, the replica has a blood stain on it. And what the hell's the matter with Johannes and his non-ability to consummate the marriage? And how about Marin? Why is she so bitchy all the time?

The Miniaturist does provide answers to these questions. But the way it does so has the feel of lazy storytelling. The miniaturist turns out to be a woman, who has the supernatural ability to "see." Sounds simplistic? It is. Oh, and Johannes turns out to be gay, which explains his inability to keep it "up" even when Nella attempts to cop a feel. Marin turns out to have been involved with a man who seems to be Johannes's nemesis in the heavily enterprising world of 17th century Amsterdam.

The clichés continue to pile up on top. Marin becomes pregnant with their black servant. When Johannes find himself imprison for the crime of sodomy, it is Nella who takes over the business. Somehow, we're made to believe that Nella acquires her business acumen overnight. And for the life of me, I can't figure out why Nella feels to have this deep connection with her husband even when they've hardly spent any time together. It's a mystery.

The Miniaturist could've been a beguiling piece of historical fiction. All the elements are there—manipulative in-laws, nosey househelp, devious businessmen and their wives, and nail-biting courtroom drama. But Burton just skims over these aspects. What you get is just a watered-down atmosphere of Amsterdam in the 1600s, which just feels damp and cold all the time.

Read this book if:
  1. You find doll houses creepy.
  2. You're into historical fiction.
  3. You're curious about the hype.


ram said...

mine is,wolf @ the table by augusten burroughs

Peter S. said...

Hi, ram! Woot! Burroughs is a favorite of mine!