At its heart, "The Miniaturist" by Jessie Burton is a contemporary novel masquerading as historical fiction. That's not to say that it doesn't incorporate rich period detail at odd moments, but it doesn't recreate the essence of a time or place.
The scandals the drive the plot feel a bit too modern when they're not balanced by the presentation of an internal struggle within the characters acting not only against heavily ingrained social norms, but also a personal moral code.
The book begins with a young woman named Nella traveling to Amsterdam to live with her new husband, his sister and their two servants. Despite her new role as mistress of the house, Nella never relaxes or feels at ease and never really enjoys the company of her distant husband or her viciously pious sister-in-law.
Such a concept can't help bring to mind classic tales of women who feel like prisoners within their homes, such as "Rebecca" or "Jane Eyre," but this book fails to create the same feeling of urgency.
Nella doesn't grab the reader as either a potential victim or a heroin, she just exists and sees things without the feeling of her feelings being transferred outward.
As she begins to receive eerie miniatures depicting her household and its inhabitants — and that double as portents of things to come — the character of the miniature's craftswoman is presented but never fully explored, and she remains a mystery that is never solved.
Generally historical fiction books with such an intriguing title or premise actually explore — in great detail — a skill, its wielder and its tools, but this one is only discussed in passing as are the main character's dealings in commerce and love.
Bad things happen in this book, but the antagonists exist neither in a gray area or as black and white. They think, they do and consequences happen, but they do not live within the pages anymore than Nella does.
And the end of the book? When it comes, it merely happens as well and life goes on — neither hopeful nor happy.
"The Miniaturist" isn't a regrettable read, but it doesn't live up to its full potential.
Reader cautions: this volume deals with some adult themes and betrayals in a very blunt, matter-of-fact manner.