Eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives on her new husband's doorstep in 1686 with a small trunk, a birdcage for her pet parakeet, and almost no clear idea of who she's just married except that he is twice her age and one of the richest men in Amsterdam. But she believes that becoming Mrs. Johannes Brandt is the best chance a girl like her, with brains and good breeding but no fortune, has to escape a dull life as a country farmer's wife.
Instead, she learns that the city is its own kind of gilded birdcage: a pious, rule-bound place that ''guard[s] the comfort of its money with dull obedience.'' And Johannes, it turns out, is an interesting man who is not very interested in her. He hardly notices Nella, leaving her to the company of his imperious sister and servants; his only concession to his bored, lonely bride is the gift of a beautiful scale model of her new home. It's her quest to furnish it that leads her to a mysterious artisan whose tiny, exquisite objects start to reflect and possibly predict the goings-on of her odd, secretive household.
The Miniaturist is one of the year's most hyped novels, and it's easy to see why. Burton conjures every scent and crackle of Nella's world even if her heroine sometimes feels like a very 21st-century avatar of 17th- century feminism, and the elements of magical realism never quite manifest. If anything, the book's magic is in its realism, not beyond it. A-