Ohen we reunite with Nella Oortman, the heroine of Jessie Burton’s 2014 blockbuster debut The Miniaturist, we find her almost as we left her. She still lives in the home of her deceased husband, Johannes Brandt, on the Herengracht canal in Amsterdam, with Cornelia the cook, Johannes’ once-slave servant Otto, and Thea, the child Otto fathered with the sister of steel from Johannes, Marin. So far so familiar, but 18 years have passed: Nella is now 37 and baby Thea is a young woman. The three unrelated adults have bonded in a family after the death of Marin and Johannes, but their fortunes dwindle and the once lavish home has been laid bare.
The family is a curiosity – “the black man who lives on the Herengracht, his mixed daughter and the widow of the man drowned by the town for his alleged sins” – and Thea’s status as a black heiress is troubling. for the upper class. The Amsterdammers she mingles with, who must weigh her “puff of scandal” against her stratospherically expensive and fashionable home. Nella is determined to solve the family’s money problems by arranging a lucrative marriage for them, but Thea resists. Just like her aunt once did, Thea believes in true love. Unlike Nella, she believes she has found her, in the arms of a handsome theater designer.
Mirroring these two teenage ingenues is the great strength of The House of Fortune: like Nella, Thea’s journey is one of overwhelming respectability; like Nella, Thea’s fortune rests on her marriage; like Nella, Thea receives mysterious gifts from “the miniaturist”, a shadow craftswoman whose wax figures evoke the secrets and dreams of young women. But where The Miniaturist unquestionably centered young Nella’s perspective, The House of Fortune frames Thea through her aunt’s maturity and experience, revealing her as vulnerable, fallible, gullible. This warped echo of Burton’s early life is clever and satisfying: Nella and Thea are fleshier and more complex than the “brave young heroine” so overrepresented in historical fiction, and the novel is stronger for it.
Burton, older now too, is a keen observer. As Thea reunites with her aging family in their “mortifying” sleepwear – “I’ll never let my body twitch like this” – Nella suffers moments of envy towards the niece she raised, “a mixture of admiration and irritation, and underneath, an undercurrent of fear.” The novel captures the surprise of aging, the realization that comes in our thirties that our dice are cast, our potential shrinkage wide open. Nella is blunt and slipped into the comfort of social role models, arranging a high-profile wedding for Thea despite her own unfortunate experience.
The world of early 18th century Amsterdam is expertly evoked, but Nella’s insistence that Thea, a very feminine woman, “sees the world, but does not immerse herself in it” is telling. The Brandts regularly recall “the manners of this town”, and although “everyone knows how much Amsterdammers love a painting”, Nella and Thea remain perplexed by the iconography of the Golden Age of the Pays -Down. Faced with a sculpted mercy, Théa knows “there is will be to be a morality, because it is the Old Church of Amsterdam”. This authoritative signage had its place in The Miniaturist, since teenage Nella was a newcomer to town, but Thea is a native. The Brandts sometimes read like 21st-century expats, coldly reflecting on the culture they exist alongside, not internalizing any of it. He makes fiction digestible, these characters with reassuringly modern sensitivities gently leading us into a problematic past; but there might have been a greater sense of challenge and danger if the Brandts were truly people of their time.
All that said, The House of Fortune is a dignified, mature and thoughtful sequel. There is something comforting in its circularity. The plot would work without the reappearance of the miniaturist herself (she takes up little space on the page and we don’t learn anything new about her), but her little tokens unify the stories of Thea and Nella, invoking the past all together. hinting at the future. Hidebound Nella must break with convention; Thea’s hothead needs a greater sense of continuity: both need to look back in order to move forward. There’s a fine line between comfort and stagnation, Burton warns us. As the inscription on Marin’s grave proclaims, “Things can change,” and building a new life can include embracing what we’ve always had. We can go home, Burton tells us; no matter how old we are, we can “start over with a seedling”.