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BOOK BIZ: Story set in Amsterdam is compelling, full of surprises

» The Miniaturist

» The Miniaturist

What an unusual book this is. After almost 400 pages it left me with unanswered questions and wanting more. It’s set in a time and place that’s unfamiliar — Amsterdam in the late 17th Century. Even in that era, this illustrious city was ahead of its time in some ways and was a booming, prosperous place. Much of that prosperity was due to the vigorous trading of the Dutch East India Company, which plays a role in the book.

In the fall of 1686, 18-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of merchant trader Johannes Brandt. She is excited to leave her small town and impoverished, widowed mother for the splendors of the city and her new home. Johannes is kind but distant, leaving Nella to entertain herself and contend with his sharp tongued sister, Marin. Things begin to change when Johannes gives Nella an unusual wedding gift — a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It’s similar to what we’d call a doll house but made of far richer materials.

Nella engages a miniaturist to create furnishings for her cabinet house. Because it’s socially acceptable in Amsterdam for ladies to walk alone, Nella visits the shop of the elusive miniaturist. She never meets this person face to face but does notice a strange woman observing her intently. Nella’s requests are filled through written notes. The ordered pieces arrive and mirror the family and their experiences in eerie and unexpected ways.

There are secrets in this household that begin to come to light in frightening and sometimes public ways. There is love, betrayal, retribution and obsession and most shockingly a side of life to Amsterdam that was definitely not progressive.

The value of sugar as a commodity and the way it was traded is interesting. Grown and processed in exotic places, the trading companies brought it back to Amsterdam in cones or loaves. Then the trick was to keep it dry and free of black mold in the damp climate of the Netherlands. Buyers tasted the product by shaving off pieces before purchasing.

The Miniaturist is well written by English writer Jessie Burton in a flowing, yet suspenseful, style that’s easy to read. A map of the area around the Brandt home, a glossary of 17th century Dutch words along with salary and household costs of that era are helpful.

» The Miniaturist
By Jessie Burton
Published by Harper Collins
$26.99 hardback   

— Lynn Lofton, mbj@msbusiness.com

About Lynn Lofton

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