The Miniaturist Summary
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English author and actress Jessie Burton’s debut novel, The Miniaturist (2014), was inspired by Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse exhibition at the Rijksmuseum. The novel became an international bestseller following a contentious bidding war in 2013. Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, the story centers on eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman’s arranged marriage to the affluent Johannes Brandt and her time serving a mysterious miniaturist in the completion of a replicated dollhouse. As Nella receives cryptic packages from the unidentified miniaturist, including eerily lifelike dollhouse furnishings, she becomes further entangled in a web of deceit, intrigue, and ultimately, death. Adapted into a television series by BBC One in 2017, The Miniaturist has been called “a fabulously gripping read” by The Guardian and “a standout portrayal of the wide range of women’s ingenuity” by Booklist.
Narrated in the third person, the novel begins with eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman’s arrival in Amsterdam in 1686. After wedding wealthy Dutch merchant Johannes Brandt via arranged marriage a month prior, Nella has left her hometown of Assendelft to live with him. Immediately struck by Golden Bend, Brandt’s ornate nine-bedroom manor, Nella is less impressed to find Johannes absent when she arrives.
Instead, Nella is coldly greeted by Johannes’s hostile sister, Marin. Nella also meets two maidservants: Otto, a former Surinam slave; and his wife, Cornelia. When Nella is shown to her room, she’s instantly aware of the unsettling atmosphere inside the big house. Worse, her virginal longings remain unconsummated given Johannes’s absence.
Upon his return, Nella is annoyed to find Johannes romantically disinterested. After dinner with Johannes’s business partners, Frans and Agnes Meerman, Nella attempts to consummate their marriage. Johannes is enraged. As he prefers a platonic relationship, Nella wonders if perhaps Johannes has an untoward relationship with his domineering sister. Indeed, Marin’s bedroom is littered with amorous clues that hint at a lurid life behind her pious exterior.
Days later, Johannes presents Nella with a wedding gift: a dollhouse cabinet equipped with an exact miniature replica of their house. Upset at first, Nella thanks Johannes with a smile. Marin is irate, deeming the dollhouse a waste of money. When Nella is given a book with a directory for a miniaturist, she writes a letter ordering furniture to adorn the model. When the package arrives days after, Nella is unnerved to not only find what she ordered, but also by the inclusion of three impossibly accurate additions: mini-models of Johannes’s two dogs and a cradle. How the miniaturist has intimate knowledge of the mansion’s interior becomes the central mystery of the novel.
Soon after, Nella visits Johannes at work and is horrified to find him receiving fellatio from Jack Phillips, a young delivery boy. Fainting at the sight, Nella is brought back home by Cornelia. Following Nella’s shocking discovery, Marin grows warmer. While Marin bathes and sobs over a love letter, Nella spies on her supple body through a keyhole. Cornelia, Nella’s only real friend in the house, reveals that Marin once planned to marry Frans Meerman. Johannes forbade the marriage, providing insight as to why Marin is so icy.
While Johannes visits Venice to peddle the Meerman’s sugar-loaves, Jack shows up at the mansion. Vengefully jilted, Jack stabs and kills Johannes’s dog Rezeki with a knife. Otto then gets into a tussle with Jack, stabbing him in the shoulder before Jack storms off the property vowing revenge.
Meanwhile, the miniaturist continues to deliver alarming gifts. A figurine of Jack is included, which Marin finds and heaves across a frozen canal. Nella discovers the doll on the doorstep the following morning. A miniature of Nella’s parakeet, Peebo, has also been delivered, oddly arriving a day after the pet vanished.
Marin’s doll is also strangely lifelike. Marin’s full-bellied miniature reveals she’s seven months pregnant, reinforcing the eerie omniscience of the miniaturist. Frans, who wrote the love letters stored in Marin’s room, is revealed as the father of Marin’s unborn child. Nella catches Marin before she can imbibe a lethal concoction that would terminate the pregnancy and her own life.
Nella visits the miniaturist’s shop and is informed by another merchant that the shop has been vacant for years. Johannes returns from Venice and warms up to Nella. When Marin confronts Johannes about failing to sell the sugar (which he left behind), an argument erupts that ends with Marin telling Johannes about Rezeki.
When Nella spots an ominous blackened sugar-loaf in her dollhouse, she begins selling sugar-loaves for Frans and Agnes in the nearby bakery. Otto leaves, afraid the authorities will arrest him for his scuffle with Jack. Frans arrives, telling Nella how he plans to report to the authorities the homosexual act he witnessed Johannes partake in. Through all of this, Nella and Johannes grow closer.
Upon Frans’s accusation, the St. George militia hunts Johannes. Forced to flee, Johannes is captured and sent to trial. Nella hopes the money she makes selling sugar-loaves will pay for his conviction charge. Johannes is sentenced to death. After Nella visits him for the final time in prison, Johannes is executed via drowning.
Nella and Agnes help Marin deliver a baby girl, whom she names Thea. Marin dies shortly after childbirth. Nella convinces pastor Pellicorne to allow Marin’s burial in the church, despite her brother’s homosexuality. In the end, it’s revealed that Otto is Thea’s father, not Frans as initially believed. Nella brings Otto back to the house to meet Thea.
Nella eventually visits the miniaturist’s workshop, learning the place has been abandoned. Nella meets the miniaturist’s father, a clockmaker named Lucas Windelbreke. The identity of the miniaturist is never given; her knowledge never explained. Despite going home and breaking the dollhouse into pieces of firewood, Nella realizes the profound impact the miniaturist had had on her ability to control her own fate.
The Miniaturist has been called “a haunting debut” by Good Housekeeping and “utterly transporting” by Burial Rites author Hannah Kent.