The year is 1686. The story is about Petronella Oortman, an 18 year old young woman who has, within recent months, married a man of 39, Johannes Brandt, to help her family solve its many money problems. Although she wanted very much to be a dutiful wife, her husband was absent from the marriage much of the time, and there was little physical contact. Nella was a bit immature due to her tender age, but she was brave and self-confident enough to travel alone to her husband’s home. When she arrived, she was greeted by his sister, Marin, who seemed distant and rather cold and calculating.
Johannes was soft spoken, handsome and wealthy, but his lack of affection distresses Nella. She observes that he loves his two dogs to excess and wishes he would display the same affection toward her.
One day, to show his fondness for her, against his sister’s better financial judgment, Johannes presents Nella with a magnificent, extravagant miniature house. It is an exact replica of their home. (The author was inspired to write this story after observing a miniature house in the Rijksmuseum) Nella is disappointed with her gift, believing she is no longer a child and has no need for such a thing, but she soon becomes involved, and almost obsessed, with the furnishings and their possible meaning and intent. Miniature homes are a trend of the times for women. They are not permitted to do many things in society, and this is another mundane way to occupy their time. As time passes, Nella begins to believe that the unasked for miniatures that keep arriving, are warning of things to come, that the Miniaturist she hired to help her furnish the rooms is a prophet of some kind, sending her messages and warnings that she needs very much to decipher and interpret for the well being of the household.
Mr. and Mrs. Meermans, Agnes and Frans, are involved in a business transaction with Johannes, and they play a pivotal role in the tale, but they are never fully realized and remain almost minor characters, along with his nemesis who possesses a less than moral background and character and would do anything for a price. He is a rather disreputable creature whom Johannes “befriended” and employed to watch over his sugar loaves, among other things. Although these characters play a role that turns the tale, there is a feeling that they are just dropped into the dialogue, at particular times, and their important purpose feels almost revealed by accident. I would have liked to see them further developed.
Two other characters were in the employ of the household. They are the maid, Cornelia, and the manservant, Otto. Both fit into the plot with some degree of importance, as well, with Otto playing more of a crucial role. Neither of them has their backgrounds investigated fully, either.
The book is a grand effort at recreating a period of England’s history. The story takes place near the end of the 17th century, at a time when women had few rights and were allowed few responsibilities, when the church played a far too influential role in the lives of the citizens, when the bias and bigotry of the church prevailed, and the greed and envy of the people ruled.
The book examines the danger of keeping secrets and telling lies, of defying the standards of the day and living a clandestine, unacceptable lifestyle according to the acceptable mores of the day. It also examines the compassion, or lack thereof, shown when an individual’s motivation, correctly or incorrectly, is used for the fulfillment of one’s self serving needs. It is a tale of forbidden love, overlaid with mystical and magical inferences which never quite come to fruition, or at least not fully or satisfactorily enough for this reader. The characters remain on the surface, and I wondered if there was to be a sequel to explain the story going forward, since there were many unresolved issues for the surviving characters.
The book would be good for a discussion on the absence or presence of universal civil rights and free choice, on the freedom of religion for all, on the power of the church to inflict punishment and effect public opinion, but taken alone, it would be best suited for a pleasant read on the beach.