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One of my library colleagues recommended The Miniaturist, which she describes as a gothic historical novel, so I thought I’d give it a try. Gothic has several connotations, but in this case I think she’s referring to the undertone of mystery and romance throughout the story. Set in the late 1600’s in Amsterdam, the novel centers on Petronella Brandt, the eighteen year old bride of a middle aged merchant whose fortune and influence have earned him a comfortable living and respect. His household is unusual in that his unmarried sister Marin lives there, and that his servants are an orphan and a black man, who Johannes Brandt took in as children and employed.

Despite his unconventional and rather swashbuckling life — he has traveled far and wide, when most people of his time never left their neighborhoods — Brandt must live according to the strictures of the Burgomasters who run Amsterdam and the zealous fire-and-brimstone clergy. Public piety and private hypocrisy run rampant. Brandt is set in his ways and unprepared for a young wife (for a variety of reasons he was happy remaining unmarried), but he tries to make her happy, giving her an elaborate cabinet which contains an ornate miniature model of their house.

Nella is baffled by the gift but searches for a craftsman to furnish it. She commissions a few pieces from a miniaturist listed in the city’s directory of artisans. Before long, she is receiving pieces she hasn’t commissioned, which reveal details of the house and its occupants that Nella herself is only just learning. How does the miniaturist know? Is there prophecy in the tiny dolls and objects? Magic? Or mere spying? Who is giving away the Brandts’ secrets? “You thought you were a locked box inside a locked box, Nella tells herself. But the miniaturist sees you — she sees us.”

The story goes beyond melodrama though. Nella comes into her own as a woman, wife, mistress of a prosperous home, sister-in-law, friend, and Amsterdamer. Raised in the country by a family with not much left but its good name, Nella has to learn the ins and outs of city life as well as of her strange new home. I enjoyed watching her catch on to business, politics, relationships, life. Nella tries to understand, but some of what she discovers — through the miniaturist’s gifts and her own expanding awareness — is either shocking or hard to fathom or both.The other characters are also interesting, although not as fully drawn. The details of seventeenth century Amsterdam are fascinating.

An absorbing read, well worth getting lost in for a few evenings.

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