Set in 17th century Amsterdam, The Miniaturist is the story of young Nella, a country girl possessing an important name and no fortune, newly married to Johannes Brandt, a wealthy Amsterdam merchant. After a short introduction and even shorter courtship, Nella is quickly married to Brandt before he vanishes back to the city to conduct his important business, leaving his bride behind to follow him when she will.
With little beside an address to go by, Nella arrives in Amsterdam and finds Brandt’s grand manor in the best part of town, but she does not find her husband. Instead, she finds Brandt’s formidable sister, Marin, who is head of the household and manager of Brandt’s business affairs. There is the fiercely loyal household cook, maid, and chief snoop, Cornelia, who was rescued from an orphanage. There is also Brandt’s valet, Otto, a slave acquired on a trip to the East Indies, then freed and employed by Brandt himself. Nella takes her established place in her husband’s home and begins to discover the secrets that form the heartbeat of her new family.
Brandt is formidable and handsome, a respected member of Amsterdam’s merchant class and leader in the Dutch East Indian Company. His business interests keep him far from home, and so do appetites that in Calvinist Amsterdam put the family squarely on a path of destruction. But he is generous and kind to Nella. As a wedding gift and to keep her occupied in her newly elevated role of married lady, Brandt presents Nella with a model replica of his house and instructs her to fill it as she will. Resourceful Nella discovers a miniaturist in the city who provides her with exquisitely detailed replicas to furnish her small house. Before long however, Nella discovers that the miniatures, which begin to arrive without having been commissioned, form premonitions of household events. Mysteries stack up. Increasingly, Nella feels herself being watched, and she herself begins to listen at keyholes. She feels as if she is working out a puzzle. No one will tell her the truth – or at least not all of it.
Austere Marin wears modest dresses of black wool. . .lined with ermine and silk. She is educated and vicious as a hawk, a grown woman who chooses spinsterhood over marriage for the freedom that it affords her. But surely there are lovers? No one seems to know for certain; or if they do, they are not talking.
In accordance with her very dignified position, Nella is introduced to Amsterdam society to great interest, the child-bride of the great Johannes Brandt. She is given an allowance and complete freedom to navigate the city at will. She learns the city’s sophisticated social customs of and grows into her position as a married lady. In the end, Nella grows up quickly and manages to save herself, if not the Brandts.
The Miniaturist has all the appeal of an historical romance, except the romance is found in all the most unexpected places. As a pager-turner, The Miniaturist can’t be beat.