The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar 2014, Day Two

December 2nd, 2014 | Filed under Books, Reading, The Book Maven's Literary Advent Calendar

Thank you all so much for your RTs and comments on my Day One post. If I can help introduce anyone to a new book? My work here is done.

Putting together this Calendar is a challenge not just because I have to limit my list to 25 titles, but because I have to choose which title to feature each day. Should I juxtapose wildly different books? Line up several with similarities? It’s a happy dilemma.

Today I’ve decided to share the historical novel that knocked my socks off this year.

The Miniaturist: A Novel by Jessie Burton

The MiniaturistI’ve long been a sucker for historical fiction the way other readers are suckers for anything with vampires in it. I can’t resist carefully researched dialect or a minutely described weskit, and I’m especially idiotic about plots that involve little-known facts. Tell me that a new novel revolves around a Jacobean priest’s hole located in Buckingham Palace and I’ll follow you anywhere.

I understand and acknowledge this weakness, and sometimes I try to steer clear of shiny book jackets that promise grim Paris Commune atmosphere, or long discourses on the contents of medieval Welsh cupboards. After all, I have a lot of titles in my TBR pile. I can’t stop everything each time a new volume of history and mystery comes in the mail. So when I opened one package to find Jessie Burton’s debut novel, The Miniaturist, I put it aside, thinking it was just another nice, safe, accessible novel about a woman in complicated antique clothing who discovers that her earrings were once in a famous painting but are actually valuable fossils belonging to the deposed sultan of a little-known land far, far away.

Yes, I’m being a bit sarcastic–but in service of making an apology to Ms. Burton. I was wrong, entirely wrong; The Miniaturist is that rare, true thing, a historical novel that manages to be fresh without being naive and surprising without being crafty. Like many of its genre fellows, Burton’s book is based on an artwork, in this case an elaborate miniature version of a 17th-century Amsterdam merchant’s townhouse. The original, shown in the book’s frontispiece, belonged to a woman named Pernilla Oortman. You can almost picture Jessie Burton seeing that relic and thinking “Thereby hangs a taleā€¦”

The remarkable part is that Burton fashions not just a novel, but a whole world around Nella Oortman’s marriage, household, and interest in her finicky cabinet. After a few dozen pages, I was so subsumed by Nella’s strange, puritanical environs that I didn’t mind whether or not the mystery of the miniaturist (who keeps sending tiny, ominous artifacts to the Oortman residence), especially because the characters wearing musty dark Mitteleuropa garments are so skillfully drawn that they could be people in modern-day Washington, DC.

By the time Nella learns why she’s receiving the miniatures, why her husband is so distant, and why he guards his stores of sugar so closely, the wheels are already in motion for the destruction of the life she’s barely come to know. Set against the background of a Holland consumed by fire and brimstone, yet beguiled by lust and sweetmeats, The Miniaturist is that rare historical novel both men and women will love. Trust me: I gave it to my favorite football-obsessed middle-aged publisher sales rep, who devoured it on the plane to this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair and asked me if I knew of any more like it.

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