A tale of a marriage of convenience in 17th century Amsterdam that goes horribly wrong. A tale that tells of the way in which a young woman comes to terms with the domestic disaster that her husband's lifestyle and his family's secrets create.
The main character is a likeable young woman, Petronella, who is married off by her widowed mother to a hugely successful merchant in Amsterdam. Nella has no real dowry, only an old and established family name that will not take her far when her father dies and leaves the family in sad financial straits. Being a good wife to her new husband is foremost in her mind, as she travels from rural Holland to the bustling neighborhood in the Golden Loop of Amsterdam. There, she is ensconced in a house on one of the main canals and left to her own devices. The house is governed by her husband's cold and autocratic sister, Marin. When Johannes Brandt, her new husband, abandons her for his work, his favorite dogs, and his constant business socializing, Nella is left to wonder when her marriage will be consummated, when she can expect to take the reins of the household, when she will know love, when she will become a mother, when she might just begin to take some control over her life.
Increasingly unhappy and confused by Johannes' strange behavior, Nella decides to approach him, to make sexual overtures, to fulfill her Christian duty as a wife, but she is rebuffed. To make up for his neglect Johannes delivers a gift of a large cabinet 'dollhouse' that is an exact replica of the Amsterdam house in which Nella and Johannes live. It is empty until Nella writes a note to a miniaturist, asking for the first small items to feather this nest.
As Nella comes to know the members of her household and as the miniaturist begins sending small packets for Nella's cabinet, Nella becomes sure that the miniaturist is guiding her gently on her voyage into Amsterdam society and into the secrets of her strange and unsettling new life. Things are not what they seem. The entanglements of Marin and Johannes lead to tragedy and Nella is left to pick up the pieces and use every ounce of survival skill to navigate the strict social circles that she has been forced to join in Amsterdam's competitive merchant class.
This was such an interesting book, but it was very dark and almost Gothic in its atmosphere. Poor Nella lives in a house of closed curtains, rooms with chill fires, whispered conversations behind closed doors, late night assignations, shadows at hall corners and the sense of always being watched and judged. The oppression is palpable, but the sense of relief is liberating when in the end, nella does take charge of her destiny.
Jessie Burton must have lived in Amsterdam for a good while, as she captures the bustle of the city perfectly. The landmarks around which she places her characters are beautifully described and the 'air of the city' is made real in her written description. I love it when that happens, as I'm reading good historical fiction. And this is good historical fiction ...
I highly recommend this book ... it's a page turner that will keep you up late!