Book review

“The House of Fortune,” Jessie Burton’s fourth novel for adults, is that rare, double-headed beast. It is a sequel to the author’s first book, “The Miniaturist,” an acclaimed work of historical fiction which enchanted legions of readers. But it is also a stand-alone novel that can be enjoyed by those who have not yet immersed themselves in the unique world of that exquisite debut. Burton returns to her main setting and brings back several characters, but the most welcome recurring feature is her skilled storytelling.

The book opens in the Brandts’ house in Amsterdam one cold January morning in 1705. It is Thea’s 18th birthday, a bittersweet occasion as it prompts her to reflect on the mother she never knew who died in childbirth. Thea often asks her father, Otto, who her mother was and why he never speaks of her, but he remains as tight-lipped about Marin Brandt as he does about his time as a slave in Suriname.

Illustration by Jenny Kwon

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“She might have become a woman today,” Burton writes of Thea, “but joy in this household is always laced with a fear of loss.” Joy is certainly in short supply. Scandal has severely tarnished the Brandts’ social standing: “Shame is still a dark imp, sitting in all the corners of this house.”

Efforts to repair the family’s fractured reputation are stymied when Otto is dismissed from his job. As times get hard, he and Thea’s Aunt Nella have no option but to sell their paintings and other valuable belongings 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 falling for wealthy, well-connected lawyer Jacob van Loos. What she doesn’t know is that Thea has been visiting the city playhouse and enjoying illicit encounters backstage with Walter, the chief set-painter and love of her life. But when she starts receiving small parcels 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 is older and wiser and acts as a 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 presence on the page.

Once again, the Dutch setting is masterfully evoked, both indoors and out, and the Brandts and their secrets (“We’re a family who lives for them”) are shrewdly depicted. If the book lacks the suspense and mystique of its predecessor, it more than compensates with its drama, which includes a twist that destabilizes Thea and throws the unsuspecting reader.

“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 is a worthy and frequently captivating companion piece.

“The House of Fortune”

Jessie Burton, Bloomsbury Publishing, 304 pp., $28

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