I so enjoyed The Miniaturist that I was only disappointed at knowing all its secrets, since I had first seen it televised on Masterpiece. Jessie Burton’s novel is set in the 17th century, and what a difference from the previous novel I read (Widdershins) also set in the 17th century. Burton’s novel evokes the bustling city of Amsterdam, ruled by commerce but also by a harsh Calvinism, a city where people are constantly watched for misbehavior.
Nella arrives from the country to take up residence with her new husband, Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant. Although she brings a good family name to the marriage, she brings nothing else, for her father was a poor businessman.
Nella isn’t warmly received. Johannes’s sister Marin is cold, and Johannes hasn’t bothered to be home. When, after a few days, Johannes hasn’t consummated the marriage and Marin continues with the housekeeping, Nella fears that she has no role in her new life.
Johannes’s marriage gift to her is a miniature copy of their house that she can furnish. Although Nella thinks he is treating her like a child, she eventually sends a note to a miniaturist asking for three items: a lute, because Marin will not allow her to play the ones in the house; a block of marzipan, because Marin disapproves of sugar; and a marriage cup, which Nella should have received from Johannes but did not. When the items arrive, they are exquisite, but she also receives things she did not order. And more arrive. They so closely match what is going on in the house that Nella first thinks the family is being spied upon, later that the items foretell the future.
This novel is really good. The story and characters are compelling. Life both within the claustrophobic household and the city is evocatively evoked. It has a delicate touch that reminds me very much of Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring. And there is that tantalizing touch of the supernatural.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
The Weight of Ink
Best of Five!
In 1957 New York, Ellie Shipley is a graduate student in art history who also does restorations. A contract for restoration work asks her to make a copy of a 17th century painting, “At the Edge of a Wood” by Sara de Vos, her only known work, for the owner. Soon, however, Ellie understands that she is creating a forgery, but she is too interested in the work to stop.
Marty de Groot, the painting’s owner, notices that his painting has been stolen. He determines he will find out who took it.
In 1631 Amsterdam, Sara de Vos and her husband are poverty stricken after the death of their young daughter. Because they have sold paintings without the permission of the guild, they have temporarily lost their membership. Sara has been painting flowers for a catalog and her husband has been working for a bookbinder. But secretly, Sara has been painting a symbolic memorial for her daughter, “At the Edge of a Wood.”
In 2000 Sydney, Ellie is now a respected academician and museum curator. She has discovered that both of the de Vos paintings, the original and the copy, are being sent to her museum for an exhibit on 17th century Dutch women painters. Now, after 40 years of strict integrity, she is afraid her past is catching up with her.
Although I found the story interesting, I was not at first that involved with this novel. Soon, however, I was totally captivated by all three stories. At first seemingly a crime novel, it goes much deeper. I really enjoyed it.
How to Be Both
Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew
The Booker Prize people liked Amsterdam a bit more than I did. Although the shattering last page of McEwan’s Atonement absolutely upended that novel, the same technique did not work as well for this one. Perhaps the problem lies with my having seen McEwan do this several times already.
The novel begins with the death of Molly Lane. Two old friends, both former lovers of Molly, meet at the funeral. Clive Linley is a world-famous composer, and Vernon Halliday is an editor trying to save a floundering newspaper. At the funeral is another of Molly’s former lovers, foreign secretary Julian Garmony, a right-wing bigot whom both men dislike. They all pay stiff respects to Molly’s possessive husband George.
The brush with mortality makes both Clive and Vernon a tad hypochondriac, and they end up exchanging a pledge. But various stresses will soon interfere with their friendship. Clive is struggling to complete what he thinks will be his masterpiece in time for a performance in Amsterdam. And George has offered to sell Vernon some compromising photos of Julian that he found in Molly’s papers. Vernon has to decide whether publication of these photos will result in increased sales or backlash.
This novel is darkly humorous. None of these men is a sterling individual. In fact, they are all morally bankrupt. Clive seems the least at fault for quite some time, but then he does something unforgivable and justifies it as being for his art.
It’s difficult to explain my main criticism without revealing the ending. I can only say that the implications of the final page do not make sense, that there is no way that the character could have known how things would work out. So, I do not think the surprise ending works as well in this case as in other McEwan novels.
The Sense of an Ending
The Child in Time