Published: 7th July 2022
Genre: Historical Fiction
Trigger warnings: Racism, sexual content
Thea Brandt is turning eighteen, and is ready to welcome adulthood with open arms. At the theatre, Walter, the love of her life, awaits her, but at home in the house on the Herengracht, winter has set in – her father Otto and Aunt Nella argue endlessly, and the Brandt family are selling their furniture in order to eat. On Thea’s birthday, also the day that her mother Marin died, the secrets from the past begin to overwhelm the present.
Nella is desperate to save the family and maintain appearances, to find Thea a husband who will guarantee her future, and when they receive an invitation to Amsterdam’s most exclusive ball, she is overjoyed – perhaps this will set their fortunes straight.
And indeed, the ball does set things spinning: new figures enter their life, promising new futures. But their fates are still unclear, and when Nella feels a strange prickling sensation on the back of her neck, she wonders if the miniaturist has returned for her…
This is a sequel that revels in the vibrant historical realisation of its setting and the return of beloved characters who remain fiercely compelling with the aid of intriguing new narratives. Powerfully written throughout as it tells a story full of morals and portrayals of complex emotions, the plot shows occasional weakness but still never fails to absorb.
Told with the hint of mystery that The Miniaturist conjured so well, the concept is strong and keeps you turning the pages rapidly, although some of the more prominent themes lack originality or even a real surprise factor. What it does deliver is imaginative characterisation and poignancy, something that really permeates through the book and is felt most acutely at the end.
It is 1705, and Thea Brandt is celebrating her eighteenth birthday at the Amsterdam house that she shares with her father Otto, Aunt Nella, and maid Cornelia. She spends the day at her favourite place, the theatre, where her best friend Rebecca Bosman is the lead actress. It is also the place where she pursues a secret love affair with an older man called Walter Riebeeck, one of the set designers.
Still scarred by past events as well as their last encounter with the miniaturist, Nella and Otto have been forced to sell many of the household’s paintings in a bid to stave off financial hardship. Nella reluctantly tries to mingle with Amsterdam’s more elite social circles in order to boost the family’s standing, and at one of these gatherings she stumbles across Jacob van Loos, a young lawyer who she sees as an ideal suitor for her niece.
However, Thea is besotted with Walter and shows very little interest in Jacob when they meet, much to Nella’s frustration. While Otto works on plans for a business venture with new friend Caspar Witsen, mysterious packages start to arrive at the door addressed to Thea. One of them contains a perfectly crafted miniature figure of Walter, and another contains a threat that could ruin her.
It was completely fascinating to discover how things had changed with the passage of time, and in particular to get to know Thea as an adult following her traumatic birth at the end of the previous book. The outcome was unexpected in parts, as the vibe feels very much the same as before only with a much less layered and complex plot.
The most effective moments take place when it focuses on Thea’s character growth, from the blind affection she feels for Walter to her strained relationship with Nella, and all of these strands were beautifully conveyed. It makes frequent reference to past events and it was moving to see how Thea is sheltered from the secrets and knows so little of her mother, Marin. However, the plot is at times a little predictable and the miniaturist herself is rather shoehorned into proceedings.
All of the story is told in the third person, switching the spotlight between Nella and Thea. There is a clear comparison to be made with Nella and what she was like when she was Thea’s age, and here the two have opposing views on what their purpose in life should be. Both perspectives are written meaningfully and it is interesting how they come to appreciate each other’s side of the argument by the end.
At first, Thea is portrayed as quite rebellious and free-spirited, but also naïve. Later though, it becomes apparent that she is equally desperate to impress her family and she undergoes quite a journey, especially after she receives the first threatening note and her life turns upside down. She is not always easy to like, but she definitely grew on me and she had some very good character development.
Albeit eighteen years older, Nella comes across as a much different character than the gutsy and captivating protagonist she was in The Miniaturist. Indeed, it even seemed like she was turning into Marin at certain points, but you still empathise with her as she takes difficult decisions to preserve the household’s future prospects, and the ending made me love her again.
Otto is a forceful personality and you root for him in a society where he and his daughter continue to be marginalised, while Cornelia is perhaps my favourite character of all for her loyalty and good humour. It was immediately obvious to see that Walter is sleazy and not to be trusted, and question marks hang over Jacob for much of the story too. In contrast, Rebecca and Caspar are much more kind and likeable.
The Amsterdam setting is once again a joy to behold, and this time we see many more aspects of it than before, with places such as the theatre and Clara Sarragon’s mansion. Elsewhere, the Brandt’s house manages to retain that singular sense of intrigue, and it was also impressive how Nella’s hometown of Assendelft ended up playing such a crucial part in the plot.
What makes the writing so good is that it is just extremely evocative, with everything combining to deliver this world’s unique atmosphere and emotion. There a some lines late on in the book which truly resonate. The ending itself is one of the highlights – even though you can easily see a lot of it coming, it is actually very heartwarming to see it all play out.
Overall, the plot may not be the most extraordinary but this is still a very competent sequel that is enjoyable to read and typically rich in detail. The dynamic between Nella and Thea is what drives the story most and there are some powerful moments that are told with a superb literary flair. Not perfect, but good in so many ways.
This was one of my most anticipated books of the year. It did not quite meet my expectations plot-wise, but I did enjoy it for the most part.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5