Jessie Burton’s wonderful novel opens with a brilliant description of Protestant, capitalist Amsterdam in 1686. It is a high period for the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Johannes Brandt is one of the most successful of these merchants, conceivably earning 40,000 guilders a year. He takes as a bride, a much younger country girl with a good family name but no assets. Petronella Oortman is the main character in this novel, which is flush with principal female characters. After their marriage, Johannes buys Nella a miniature doll-house. She initially finds it belittling, but it is no insignificant present.
This doll-house is based on the real cabinet house of Petronella Oortman which is in The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The historical Mrs. Oortman was a wealthy widow. The cabinet house with 700 miniatures which real Johannes Brandt owned was purportedly priced sell to Peter the Great for 30,000 guilders. He found it too expensive and declined.
The novel has an appendix that provides comparable prices for goods and services at that time. A string of diamonds would be valued at 2,000 guilders. Even for a wealthy merchant, the fictional Mr. Brandt was making an extravagant gift to his new bride.
This novel is a page-turner, with many twists and well drawn characters. Some of the twists may be more modern than what would be expected in one household, but it is not beyond possibility. The interplay of wealth and organized religion, fundamental beliefs and prejudices, are thematic without interfering with the flow of the plot.
Ms. Burton is a gifted story-teller and this is an enjoyable book to read.