THE MINIATURIST, by Jessie Burton. Ecco, 397 pp., $26.99.
Jessie Burton's accomplished first novel is many things -- a deftly plotted mystery, a feminist coming-of-age drama and a probing investigation of marriage. Burton evokes the sights, sounds and smells of 17th-century Amsterdam as she brings to life a cast of sensitively rendered characters, each longing to be free.
As the story begins in 1686, 18-year-old Nella has just married wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. He's two decades her senior, and she barely knows him, but in the wake of her father's debt-ridden death, "What other option was there. ... but life as a wife?"
Her new husband is handsome and intelligent, and though Nella is baffled by his rueful disquisitions on the hypocrisies of Amsterdam society and the limits of love, she appreciates being treated with respect -- at first. Readers more sophisticated than a 17th-century Dutch teenager will discern the reason for Johannes' lack of physical interest in Nella long before she stumbles across his secret.
The real puzzle is Johannes' relationship with his forbidding sister Marin, who manages his home and participates in his business affairs with an authority rarely ceded to women of that era. Nella soon realizes that Marin has hidden sorrows of her own, but no one in this secretive household will enlighten its frustrated new member.
So Nella immerses herself in Johannes' wedding gift: a cabinet house (based on an actual 17th-century dollhouse at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) that reproduces in miniature every room in the Brandt home. Her efforts to furnish it lead Nella to the miniaturist of the title, an enigmatic woman who may have otherworldly knowledge. She fills Nella's order -- and adds some additional items, including human figures replicating the Brandts, their servants and other people significant to the escalating drama of Johannes' secret life.
The novel's central journey is Nella's maturation, and it goes grimly hand in hand with the suffering of people she has come to love. Burton gives her narrative the propulsive drive of a thriller, but her distinctive prose conveys deeper, harder answers than a whodunit. This fine historical novel mirrors the fullness of life, in which growth and sorrow inevitably are mingled.