August 20, 2014

The Little Pieces of a Life

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Release Date: August 26, 2014
Publisher: HarperCollins | Ecco
Pages: 416 pages
Source & Format: Publisher at BEA; ARC
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Summary (from Goodreads)
On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office-leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella's world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist-an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways...

Johannes' gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand-and fear-the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation... or the architect of their destruction?

Thoughts on The Miniaturist
When I was looking into what books would be available at BEA, I came across The Miniaturist. It was a BEA Buzz book - an adult title chosen by a panel as a featured book for the event. There seemed to be a pretty limited quantity of the book at BEA, and I actually missed the drop for it because it conflicted with something else on my schedule. But, in a twist that turned into one of my favorite moments from BEA, a lovely publicist from HarperCollins grabbed a copy for me on Saturday after we commiserated over the craziness of the crowd.

As a historical fiction lover, I was immediately intrigued by the summary and gorgeous cover. Then, I realized how much hype it was getting. That only made me more excited for this read! I took it with me on my beach vacation, and it was a nice change of pace from some of the other reads I'd brought with me. Unfortunately, I'm not sure if my expectations were too high or I'd just heard too much hype, but I wasn't totally in love with The Miniaturist. I'd read something that compared it to Burial Rites - one of my all-time favorite reads from last year - so I was really hoping I'd have that kind of connection to the characters and story.

As with Burial Rites, the setting in The Miniaturist ended up being one of my favorite parts of the book. Set in Amsterdam in 1686, this book focused on a time period and place that I've never really read about before. Sure, I've read a few books with scenes taking place in Amsterdam - but nothing in this time where God and gold are worshipped above all else. The setting is almost like a character in this book, which I definitely loved. It made me crave more of this city's rich history!

The writing was also lovely. I loved Burton's way with words and phrasing of certain things. It's very descriptive, which I thought added to the setting and spirit of the place. For me, the setting and writing itself were the two strongest parts of this book.

However, I really struggled to connect with or understand the characters. The characters never felt real to me - and their actions and motivations didn't always seem to align. Nella, the protagonist, swings from unsure and shy to confident and authoritative. As a big fan of historical fiction, I found Nella way too modern at times! I found it hard to believe that she would think and behave the way that she did in this book once she uncovers some of the household's secrets. Her relationship with the other characters also felt very undefined to me. I didn't understand why she cared about the strangers she was now living with because there wasn't enough development there. It seemed like there was no emotion behind the characters and their relationships with one another.

The plot was interesting - I did want to keep reading - but it was also pretty predictable. I wasn't surprised by any of the revelations, but the book overall was engaging enough that I wanted to finished and find out how it would end. However, this might be nitpicky but I found the title frustrating in light of the miniaturist's actual role in the novel. It was so intriguing at first, but almost none of the questions surrounding the miniaturist are answered by the end of the book. Talk about promising storyline that was ultimately very unfulfilling!

Overall, The Miniaturist was a bit of a mixed bag for me: the setting was so unique and writing style was lovely, but the characters were undeveloped and plot was too predictable. It didn't live up to the hype for me, but I did like it while I was reading it. Parts of it were so impressive, but I was left wanting more in the end. I don't regret reading The Miniaturist and I'll be curious about what Burton writes next, but I won't be revisiting this book in the future.

So Quotable
"The surface of Amsterdam thrives on these mutual acts of surveillance, the neighborly smothering of a person's spirit."
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect my opinion of the book or my review.

4 comments:

  1. Oh no - I have been looking forward to your review of this book since your BEA Haul because it just sounds AWESOME. And the cover. So gorgeous. It actually also reminds me of Burial Rites in a way, too. Sucks to hear it didn't meet your expectations - I agree that what a character thinks and acts can be so important in historical fiction. Sometimes I'm able to get over it, but other times - especially in a book like this where it sounds like setting and culture play such a key role - it really is so important for the characters to act in accordance with their time.

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  2. Aw, I'm sad you didn't like this more because it sounds SO good! And of course, if you didn't really connect with it, I doubt I will :/ Sad face.

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  3. Wonderful review. Characters can make or break a book sometimes, so that's unfortunate... I need connection too! But I do love historical fiction and sometimes the setting and lovely prose can make up for other deficiencies. Even though I'm sooo tempted by the beautiful cover I'll probably check it out at the library instead :)

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  4. Oh, boo! I was also really interested in reading The Miniaturist after seeing it mentioned so often at BEA this year. I'm glad that there were things about it that really worked for you, but the lack of connection to the story/character is something that really makes me think I'm not going to enjoy it as much as I'd hoped either. As always, lovely review, in spite of your reservations!

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