For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Roy den Boer is taking over as our main reviewer for the book club books, judging all that we have picked.
The Miniaturist follows young Petronella Oortman as she arrives and becomes part of her new home in Amsterdam, after being wed to an older VOC merchant named Johannes Brandt. The new household, consisting of Brandt’s sister Marin, maid Cornelia and manservant Otto, is very unwelcoming to Nella’s smalltown sensibilities. Nella begins receiving miniatures that seem to know everything that is going on in the house. She investigates this curious happening and throughout the novel grows into her role as head of a powerful household in Amsterdam.
This description only sort of describes the novel. It definitely describes the novel you start, but it doesn’t really capture the spirit of the novel that you end up reading. The first third captures a certain ominous atmosphere. We sense the dark wooden corridors filled with dank, dusty air and an atmosphere that keeps our heroine continually out of earshot. But then the revelations start coming fast and furiously. The remaining majority of the novel feels like an unrelenting series of climactic third act reveals. Toward the end of the novel when the main thrusting question of the plot has become: who is the father of the illegitimate baby? – you realize you’re actually comfortably in soap opera territory. The first third of the novel is not entirely successful, but does capture a darkly ominous atmosphere in a dark, strange and stuffy house. Our heroine catches glimpses and half muffled whispers of all the secrets that lie under the skin, but when these secrets are revealed the novel loses its credibility.
The characters, pretty flimsy to begin with, buckle under the weight of all this drama. Their personalities shift drastically to make whatever scene they’re in the most dramatically dramatic scene possible. Cornelia is mean in one scene, nice in the next. Otto ignores her, Otto is kind. Johannes Brandt seems like completely oblivious to everybody else, but then he’s suddenly very nice and aware of everything. Even Petronella doesn’t seem particularly consistent. Her arc is supposed to be one of maturing, but really when the novel is done we have indeed seen some intermittent moments of growth but nothing truly convincing. Is the Petronella we leave drastically different than the one that started? Maybe? She knows all the secrets, but has it really changed her? We don’t really know, and since she’s pretty much the perspective character that’s a shame.
The plot thread involving the titular miniaturist really doesn’t pay off. It’s a mystery that remains a mystery – and that’s fine, but not only does the plot lack any resolution, it lacks any thematic resonance. Figuring out the mystery of the miniaturist becomes Nella’s raison d’être for a while, but then seems mostly forgotten in favor of all the crazy shit happening in her own house. When the novel sometimes returns to the miniatures they simply aren’t relevant anymore. This whole plot feels like a stab at the sublime that is completely unearned by the rest of the novel.
The book is maybe most interestingly cowardly when it involves itself actively in questions of feminism and acceptance of human sexuality. Positing the message that women should get to work, homosexuality should be accepted and that interracial romance should be okay – these certainly were very shocking in the seventeenth century, but they aren’t now.
The book is explicitly involving itself with questions of feminism and acceptance of human sexuality, but this is where the book is really most cowardly. Questions of interracial relationships, female independence and homosexuality are so accepted now that it’s incredibly easy to criticize the seventeeth century for not being progressive – but what’s the value? Unless we invent the technology to time machine this novel back a few hundred years, there’s really nothing to be learned from the novel. These uncontroversial controversies are more reminiscent of young adult novels.
Obviously, I felt this novel had a lot of issues, but, in its favor, it really is an easy read. If you read it real fast without thinking, it might even be fun.
What did you think of The Miniaturist? If you haven’t read it yet, you can order this book at Bookdepository or Bol.com. Also, take a look at our further reading recommendations if you did enjoy The Miniaturist. We recommend some other books you might want to try!