Welcome to the Dollhouse

What is it about quiet desperation that attracts so many authors? I've lost count of the books I've read that feature a protagonist suffering in silence for most (if not all) of the story. I'm not morally opposed to it or anything, but it's a bit akin to that movie convention where a series of misunderstandings could be cleared up by a two-minute conversation.

Nella Oortman, the protagonist of Jessie Burton's 2014 novel The Miniaturist, can now proudly take her place in this long list of dour heroines, though at least she has the excuse of living in 1686 Amsterdam. Plucked from her family's countryside home to marry a man she hardly knows, Nella finds it difficult to adjust to city living. Though her husband is wealthy, he ignores her, her sister-in-law rules the household with an iron fist, and even the servants don't seem to care much for her.

Nella is given a massive replication of the house made in miniature as a distraction, but she notices that the craftsman that's made the miniature people and animals that populate this house are detailed in ways they shouldn't be. How could the miniaturist know so much about their lives? As Nella attempts to dig into this mystery, she gains a certain amount of agency, but life has other plans.

In the back third of the book, a series of disasters befall Nella and her new family, and although she's gained a new understanding about how to make her way in the world, she's left in an extremely precarious position. I won't reveal the ending or anything, except to say that it doesn't do much to bring meaning to the story that has led up to it. I'm not one of those readers that demands everything be tied up in a neat little bow by the end, but I was left wondering why this book asked for such investment in characters that it would then turn around and abandon.

It's a well-written book, and I'm not sorry I read it, but in a way, Burton treats her characters like the very dolls Nella grimly marches around their tiny domicile.

The Miniaturist: B-


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