I wanted so very much to like this book, considering how much I have been enjoying strong female characters in historical fiction lately. But what really bothers me is just how little the setting (late 1600s, the Netherlands) had anything to do with the story. (Bear in mind, setting only means place + time of a story.)
The characterizations of each person in the book– from the protagonist, Nella all the way to the black manservant, Otto–could have been moved to the 1900s, easily, and the story would have made just as much sense, if not more. Nella is articulate, brave, educated, and ideas of a woman’s “place” that were not available to farm girls until about 1962. Otto is a self-assured black man who speaks out and familiarly with his white, wealthy employer. While as modern readers, you want them to do these things, it’s entirely unrealistic and quite jarring for the first few instances, until you just kind of learn to ignore the fact that the characters are anachronistic.
I finished the book in one day; if you think the setting will be a hurdle to reading the book, it’s simply not the case. The actions of each person read as 21st century (all the way down to the maid and the un-named street urchins), and aside from a few “in the know” phrases (which are defined in a handy glossary, if you’re too slow to pick up the definitions from obvious context clues or too lazy to ask Siri on your iPhone) and the over-educated and headstrong women screaming to the rafters that “being a wife is the most important thing!!!1!” the entire book is written as modern.
If you’re hoping to find out how the miniaturist plays a central role in the life of Nella and her family, you’re SOL. I have no idea why the book is titled as it is. That entire plot line could have (and should have) been cut, and you’d just be left with a semi-decent and more approachable family drama. It’s as if someone told the author that she needed some sense of fantasy in the book in order to sell, so she slapped this little mystery in there, but then wasn’t creative enough (or pushed) to explain how it worked.
Though the book takes place over the course of four or five months (winter, mostly, with the cold and foreboding cityscape being the most likable character in the book and the best-described) there are close to no good reasons as to why Nella cares at all about her new family of Marin and Johannes, and considering the social status she is clinging to, the friendship cultured between herself and the “help” (Cornelia the maid who was an orphan and Otto, the previously mentioned black butler) is completely unlikely. For about ten pages Nella upholds this opinion that she’s shocked and somewhat insulted by how friendly the house staff is, and then blam! she’s hanging out with them in the kitchen and all but helping with the chores.
Nella is eighteen at the beginning of the story, and most of the characters refer to her as a “child.” While some really cursory research reveals that Dutch people maybe married at a bit older than that in the 1600s (23-25), I don’t think they would be considered “children” at that age, especially considering life expectancy was around 50 years. And it’s revealed that another, unmarried female character is about 32, and is pitied as being an old spinster throughout. What a depressingly small window of opportunity.
Considering that Nella is a farmgirl before she is married, it’s the haughtiness and pride she feels about being a rich man’s wife that reads the most false, but that is the most pervasive characterization of Nella throughout the book– that she somehow knows just how a wife is supposed to act, and all those other womanly arts (but SPOILER: somehow doesn’t have any idea how to birth a baby?). I have a pretty good idea that if you’ve lived on a farm for 18 years, you get the basic mechanics of mammalian birth, but I guess not.
Also, upon further reading, I’m a bit dodgey on why Nella had to marry to “save her family” at all. She says that her mother had servants growing up, but again: even the most basic research shows that only the wealthiest families had staff to keep up their households in the Netherlands in the 1600s, so was marrying her off to Johannes, a stranger in the big city, really necessary? Also, if her family was wealthy enough to have maids and household staff, why were they living in the sticks?
If you’re not hoping for any sense of historical realism, pick up The Miniaturist for a quick and easily-unraveled family drama/mystery. I can’t for the life of me figure out why this book is so well-revered.