“The House of Fortune,” Jessie Burton’s fourth adult novel, is that rare two-headed beast. It is a sequel to the author’s debut book, “The Miniaturist,” an acclaimed work of historical fiction that has enchanted legions of readers. But it’s also a stand-alone novel that can be enjoyed by those who haven’t yet immersed themselves in the unique world of this exquisite debut. Burton returns to his main setting and brings back several characters, but the most welcome recurring feature is his deft storytelling.
The book opens in the Brandts’ Amsterdam home on a cold January morning in 1705. It’s Thea’s 18th birthday, a bittersweet occasion that prompts her to reflect on the mother she never had. known and who died in childbirth. Thea often asks her father, Otto, who her mother was and why he never talks about her, but he remains as tight-lipped about Marin Brandt as he was about his time as a slave in Suriname.
“She may have become a woman today,” Burton writes of Thea, “but the joy in this house is always tied to the fear of loss.” Joy is certainly rare. The scandal severely tarnished the social status of the Brandts: “Shame is still a dark imp, sitting in every corner of this house.”
Efforts to mend the family’s shattered reputation are hampered when Otto is fired from his job. As times get tough, he and Thea’s Aunt Nella have no choice but to sell their paintings and other valuable possessions to make ends meet.
Other plans to restore their fortunes are hatched. Otto embarks on a clandestine business venture involving Nella’s childhood home, Assendelft. Nella pins her hopes on her niece who falls in love with wealthy and well-connected lawyer Jacob van Loos. What she doesn’t know is that Thea has visited the town’s playhouse and enjoyed illicit backstage encounters with Walter, the head painter and love of her life. But when she begins to receive small packages containing miniature objects, followed by equally anonymous blackmail notes, it becomes clear that someone somewhere is watching her.
Burton’s debut centered around another 18-year-old, Nella. Here, aged 37, she’s older and wiser and serves as the perfect foil for the British author’s new heroine, the delightfully headstrong Thea. Thankfully, Burton doesn’t completely relegate Nella to the shadows: she still has agency and page presence.
Once again, the Dutch decor is masterfully evoked, inside and out, and the Brandts and their secrets (“We are a family that lives for them”) are skillfully portrayed. If the book lacks the suspense and mystique of its predecessor, it more than makes up for in its drama, which includes a twist that unsettles Thea and throws the unsuspecting reader away.
‘The House of Fortune’ would be an even rarer beast if it were superior to ‘The Miniaturist’. It isn’t, but rather than a pale imitation of that novel, it’s a worthy and often engrossing companion.