My rating: 5 of 5 stars
as the stars of heaven for multitude….
How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance,
and your burden, and your strife?”
The Miniature Petronella Oortman
Petronella Oortman is barely eighteen years old in 1686 when she marries a rich merchant named Johannes Brandt and moves to his house in Amsterdam. It is unnerving to move so far away from her relatives and all the people she has known her entire life, but it is also exciting to finally escape the boredom of the country and the oppressive slow slide into poverty that her family has been experiencing before, and progressively faster, after her father drank himself to death.
The Miniature Peebo!
She has a parakeet named Peebo and very little else to her name when she arrives in Amsterdam. Her husband, a man she barely knows, is not there to greet her, but his sister is.
The Mrs. Danvers of Amsterdam.
In theory the household belongs to Nella, but everything is so different from her former life that she ends up doing what little she is allowed to do wrong, and every time she tries to have a conversation with one of her fellow inhabitants she seems to end up inserting one dainty foot between her lips. This isn’t due to the fact that she is spiteful or sarcastic or silly or stupid, but has to do with the plethora of secrets that infest the entire household. They are the unknowable things that make her feel exactly what she is...an outsider.
Well she thinks she knows.
She is the household maid. She is the keyhole listener, a snatcher of pieces of conversations. She looks through keyholes sometimes seeing an arm or a leg, but never seeing the body complete. She fills in the blanks, sometimes correctly, but sometimes not, and those of us who have studied language know how critical getting one word wrong or right can be in having a proper understanding of a situation.
There is Otto as well, a man who wears his foreign heritage in the color of his skin. He is a walking circus, an inspirer of twittering conversations behind hands or for those more bold catcalls of a derogatory nature everywhere he goes. Johannes saved him from dire circumstances, so despite having to live in a hostile city his loyalty to the Brandts keeps him in Amsterdam.
The painting that inspired the author when she describes Madame Marin.
Madame Marin has never married, despite being beautiful and wealthy. She inherited this household at a young age after their parents died and saw no need to exchange it for possibly a less desirable position as a wife. As the plot unfolds we learn more about Marin and the first impressions we have of her turn out to be but a few flakes in a wind blown snowstorm. She turns out to be much more complex and more humanistic than her cold demeanor and her simmering fury will allow the world to see.
”There’s something about Madame Marin. She’s a knot we all want to untie.”
Nella has been in Amsterdam for eleven days and her husband has not visited her wedding bed. For a girl that was expecting to be “made woman” this is confusing and embarrassing. He is always busy, rushing about down to the wharf to conduct business or locked up in his study, when at home, late into the night.
”Nella inhales the air in the boat, the hint of the places he’s been, the scent of cinnamon stuck in his very pores. he smells vaguely of the musky tang she smelled in his study the night he first came home. Her husband’s brown face and his too-long hair, bleached and toughened by sun and wind, trigger an awkward longing--the desire not necessarily for him, but to know how it will feel when they finally lie together.”
He travels the world in an age where most people may never leave the city they were born in or explore further than a few miles from home. Amsterdam is a city of merchants. Greed is the worm that everyone has swallowed. Brandt has turned out to have a gift for negotiation and for swaying men with his charm and wit. He has made many men rich. He is tired of the life and finds he would rather have fluffy, roasted potatoes than a pile of glittering gilders.
”Greed is not a prerequisite for being good at business, Nella, I crave very little for myself. Just potatoes?” He smiles. “Just potatoes. And you are right, I am not a philosopher, I am merely a man who happens to have sailed to Surinam.”
“You said the sugar was delicious.”
Sugar becomes the watchword of this book. The world has a craving for it and Brandt has accepted a commission to sell bricks of it for some frenemies. The sugar, unfortunately, proves to be a “millstone” around his neck.
A dollhouse owned by a real Petronella Oortman currently in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Johannes buys his bride a cabinet, a miniature dollhouse of “her” house. It is expensive and certainly he doesn’t send the right message to his young bride who is still too closely tied to dolls and toys. His intent was generous and Nell becomes caught up in the spirit of the gift and contacts:
Residing at the sign of the sun, on Kalveerstraat
Originally from Bergen
Trained with the great Bruges clockmaker, Lucas Windelbreke
ALL, AND YET NOTHING.
Miniature Houses became all the rage in the 17th century. People spent ridiculous sums making their miniature houses as sumptuous as possible. Brandt had an exact duplicate of his house made for Nella, well except for one missing room, but you will have to read the book to figure out why.
Nellal orders items to make her house even more her own. The miniaturist as it turns out has some ideas of what she needs as well. She starts sending her unsolicited packages with cryptic notes and presentiments of what will be.
It all becomes rather alarming.
She writes the miniaturist receiving no replies. She stops at her shop. She sees her on the street, a splash of yellow hair, but can never catch her. She is a phantom whose intentions are hard to fathom. This Miniaturist can see into people’s souls. As spooky as it all seems these packages become Nell’s lifeline to understanding the truth.
Those secrets that everyone hoards like gold, start to be spent.
There is an English lad named Jack Philips, a fly in any ointment, an actor, a bohemian, a blackguard, a destroyer of worlds. ”Jack steps into the light at the sound of her, opening his arms wide. He is really so beautiful, Nella thinks. So wild. She cannot take her eyes off him.” He has a puzzling hold on Johannes, another of those secrets that will soon be out in the air. Nella’s own attraction to him is unsettling, but really he is just a good looking sprite of a man that can temporarily stir the hormones of anyone.
When I saw this photo of the author I was not surprised to learn that she had worked as an actress.
As Nella’s world begins to unravel just as she starts to understand it, we will see the resolve of the entire cast of characters tested, one by one, as the wheel of fate continues to turn. Jessie Burton, for such a young writer, kept a steady hand on the tiller and unspooled the plot judiciously to lend maximum impact to the final chapters. She showed wisdom beyond her years, exposing the misconceptions that we all have about each other, even sometimes those people we feel we know well. Nella learns how intolerance leads to cynicism and how dark secrets can become cancers.
No more secrets...but we all have secrets, layers of them, some are spun gold and others are a lead weight lending joy or anxiety in equal measures. Some add spice inspiring giggles and smiles when remembered. Others are sour like vinegar pulling down the corners of our mouths, stealing the bliss from any new found pleasures.
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