Amsterdam in 1686 is a conflicted, dangerous place: homosexuals are sentenced to death by drowning; dolls, puppets and gingerbread men are banned as idolatrous; religious extremism goes hand-in-hand with corrupt business dealings.
Enter Petronella Oortman, an 18-year-old girl from the country who has just married wealthy trader Johannes Brandt, though he is decidedly uninterested in their pairing. Petronella's only company are Johannes's severe and cold sister Marin, the maid, and Johannes's African man-servant. To make up for his absence, Johannes gives Petronella an elaborate and expensive wedding present: a perfect cabinet-house replica of their actual mansion. Petronella enlists a miniaturist to furnish it, but when the pieces arrive, they seem to reveal the hidden secrets of those living in the house.
This concept is loaded with intrigue and, paired with the tumultuous historical setting, should be an excellent setup for a taut and thrilling narrative. However, the novel (which is released Tuesday, Sept. 2) never manages to instil any of the events with a sense of urgency or authenticity.
The cabinet house and the tiny miniaturized versions of the story's characters provide some intriguing metaphors for the novel's main conflict, but little else. There's no motivation for Petronella to be interested in the cabinet house, and though much of the novel is spent trying to build up the mystery of just who the miniaturist actually is, the eventual solution is anti-climactic and of virtually no consequence to the rest of the plot.
Petronella comes from a once-wealthy family, but her father ruined them and left them with considerable debts after his death. Despite her mother's harsh advice about the subordinate and restrictive plight of women, Petronella enters into her own marriage with a Disney-fied naiveté. She expects romance and true love, even though she has no reason to hold to such ideals.
Early on in the narrative it is discovered that Johannes is having an affair with his English delivery boy (hence his lack of interest in Petronella, as well as the political motivations for the marriage). At first Petronella is offended at the sham of her marriage, but quickly takes up her husband's cause and stands by him at his eventual trial, saddened by the political machinery that will see her husband put to death for being true to himself.
Petronella and everyone else in the Brandt household have a modern, liberal sensibility about race and sexual freedom that is simply out of place in this historical setting. These few characters seem to have emerged in a vacuum, learning the value of being to true to their own identities in spite of the oppressive religious and sexual values that surround them. Surely there were transgressors in 17th-century society, but within this one household there is disregard for the laws against idolatry (the miniatures), a homosexual affair, an interracial romance, and a secret love child. At some point, every reader is sure to roll her eyes and exclaim, "Oh, come on!"
The novel is meticulously and carefully researched, which makes the out-of-place liberalism of the main characters more noticeable. There is a photograph of the real Petronella Oortman's cabinet house, a glossary of Dutch words, and a salary comparison for a slew of 17th-century jobs. In the text itself, Dutch words are italicized and the ingredients for various dishes are outlined in exhaustive detail.
There is an argument to be made for the usefulness of this information, but at some point it gets in the way of the actual narrative and feels more like author Jessie Burton's desire to show off her work.
The novel is a page-turner, though, owing mostly to the brevity of its chapters and the clarity of Burton's language, making is a good choice for a light, end-of-summer read. The historical setting and basic plot are likely to draw fans of novels such as Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Adam Bede or Pride and Prejudice. Just don't expect to find anything as sophisticated or as memorable as those classics.
Keith Cadieux is a Winnipeg writer.