Before learning that I had a Dutch great-grandfather, I wasn't particularly interested in the Netherlands. Since then, though, I have taken a trip to Holland, found a new appreciation for Edam cheese, and read a number of books about the place.
Two excellent novels published in 2014 are set in 17th century Amsterdam. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton follows the first months of Nella Oortman's marriage to Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant who is rarely around. He pays scant attention to her when she arrives at his home in Amsterdam after a very brief marriage ceremony months earlier in her own town. Weeks after her arrival, Nella is still waiting for Johannes to come to the marriage bed. Roaming around a big house with two servants and her dour sister-in-law and only rarely seeing her husband is not how she thought marriage would be. In order to make up for his inattention, Johannes purchases a wildly expensive dollhouse, or cabinet, for Nella to furnish that is an exact miniature replica of their home. When the furniture and dolls begin arriving from the miniaturist, Nella becomes intrigued (and slightly concerned). The miniaturist sends objects that Nella has not requested and seems to know things that only someone living in the merchant's house would know!
The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal is told by several people who were involved in the story of Rembrandt's painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Nicolaes Tulp. This exquisitely told tale throws us right into the day Adriaen Adriaenszoon (aka Aris the Kid and - spoiler alert - the corpse in the painting) is hanged for being a thief. As the events of the day unfold, we see Rembrandt working in his studio, Aris contemplating his life, and Aris's lover making her way to Amsterdam in order to try and save him or at least bring his body home if he cannot be rescued. French philosopher Rene Descarte and Jan Fetchet, the man charged with preparing the body for the anatomy lesson, also make appearances. I was so absorbed in the novel that when I looked up from my e-reader, I was surprised to find that I wasn't walking out in the cold, flat Dutch countryside or on a canal in the middle of Amsterdam. I was, however, happy to be secure in my home knowing that I didn't have to face the hangman or figure out how to paint a hand on a corpse that was missing one!
For more books - both fiction and non-fiction - about the Netherlands, check out this list.