A talented new writer of historical fiction evokes 17th-century Amsterdam, the opulent but dangerous Dutch capital, where an innocent young wife must navigate the intrigues of her new household.
“Every woman is the architect of her own fortune,” reads 18-year-old Nella Oortman in a message that will gather meaning like a rolling stone as this novel progresses. It comes from the peculiarly knowledgeable artisan who is creating miniature objects for a dollhouse-sized version of her new home, which Nella received as a wedding gift. Hastily married to a wealthy older merchant, Johannes Brandt, after her father’s death left her provincial family struggling, Nella arrives alone in Amsterdam, readying herself for her unknown husband’s demands. Instead, she finds herself sleeping by herself, ignored by Johannes and dismissed by his brusque sister, Marin, who rules the house and influences the business, too. Distracted by the wedding present, Nella commissions a miniaturist to supply tiny items of furniture; but these exquisite objects and their accompanying messages soon begin to bear a chilly, even prophetic relationship to people and things—suggesting their maker knows more about the family and its business than is possible or safe. In a debut that evokes Old Master interiors and landscapes, British actress Burton depicts a flourishing society built on water and trade, where women struggle to be part of the world. Her empathetic heroine, Nella, endures loneliness and confusion until a sequence of domestic shocks forces her to grow up very quickly. Finally obliged to become that architect of her own fortune, Nella acts to break the miniaturist’s spell and save everything she holds dear.
With its oblique storytelling, crescendo of female empowerment and wrenching ending, this novel establishes Burton as a fresh and impressive voice; book groups in particular will relish it.