In 1600s Amsterdam, Nella agrees to marry a rich merchant. She looks forward to living in the city and being a wife and mother. However, when she gets to Amsterdam, she discovers that her husband wants nothing to do with her. He’s rarely home, and he leaves Nella in the care of his ultra-religious sister, Marin. The only affection he shows Nella is when he buys her an empty dollhouse. At first, Nella is offended by the gift: she isn’t a child and doesn’t need toys. But, when she decides to furnish the dollhouse, she meets a mysterious miniaturist who seems to know all of the secrets that her husband and his sister are hiding.
The setting of this book is fascinating and well-researched. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction, but I’ve never read a book set in Amsterdam in the 1600s. Nella lives in an extremely religious society. Doing anything un-Christian can get a person executed. The characters constantly need to keep up their pious appearances to avoid arousing the suspicion of their neighbors.
I love how this book confronts issues that are still problems in modern-day society. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but the book talks about race, sexuality, religious, and gender discrimination. It shows how far we’ve come since the 1600s and how far we still need to go.
My favorite character is Marin. She’s so unlikeable at first, but by the end of the book, I loved her. She’s complex. She’s hiding a lot of secrets and using her religion and bad temper as a shield to protect her family. Marin is probably the most intelligent character in the book. She’s practically running her brother’s business, even though she’s not allowed to because she’s a woman.
I like Marin, but I have problems with the other characters. Nella is a fairly bland protagonist. She doesn’t have a lot of personality, and I don’t understand her loyalty to Johannes. She’s married to him, but she doesn’t really know him. They barely interact for most of the book. Then, when Nella attempts to get to know him, she discovers that he’s doing something that goes against her religious beliefs and the laws of her city. I understand why she wouldn’t want him arrested, but why does she suddenly become so loyal to a person she barely knows? He doesn’t even seem like he’s that great of a person. He has a family to support, but he’s careless about his illegal behavior. If he gets caught, his family could lose everything. I just don’t get Nella’s loyalty.
I also had a hard time getting into the author’s writing style. The writing is a bit clumsy, like it’s trying to be formal, but it isn’t quite succeeding. My copy of the book also has noticeable typos. The typos and writing style slowed down my reading enough that I got annoyed.
It took me a long time to get interested in this story, and I had some problems with it, but I’m glad that I didn’t give up on it. I did briefly consider quitting because the beginning is slow, but by the halfway point, I was totally hooked. I couldn’t put it down. The mystery of the miniaturist is compelling, and the family has so many secrets that I had to keep reading to find out what Nella would uncover next. The crazy ending helped make up for the slow start, and I would love to read more books set during the 1600s.