Wednesday, February 07, 2024

The Naturalist Of Amsterdam by Melissa Ashley


I don't know about you, but I am always on the lookout for historical fiction that is something that bit different, whether it be setting, subject or something else. As soon as I heard about this book, I thought it sounded really interesting for a number of reasons, but if I had to pick just one reason then it would be because of my husband's Dutch heritage.

I originally intended to read this mid last year when my read on a theme bookclub chose Science as a theme. However, I realised that it was too early compared to release date so I ended up reading Lessons in Chemistry instead. The theme for our January meeting was a book with a place name in the title.  I must confess I did have about 40 different titles on my Kindle  that would have fit the theme, and that doesn't include any titles with Paris in it, but this was the perfect choice for me!


We first meet Dorothea Graff (also known as Dortje or Dort) she is living in a Labatist community. Her mother has moved with her daughters into the religious community, leading to the breakdown of her marriage. It is a very austere life, and the only joy for Dortje is the times when she gets to spend time with her mother assisting with her work.

Her mother, Maria Sybilla Merian, is a famous naturalist, someone who observes nature and then, in Maria's case, creates amazing manuscripts full of detailed paintings and descriptions. Her work is popular and incredibly collectible at the highest levels of society. Dortje grows up assisting her mother, and when Maria decides to travel to Suriname there is no question as to whether she will be her mother's companion. It is a remote and dangerous life, but there is also incredible beauty in the unique plants and creatures that abound.

Whilst Dort loves her life in Suriname, she does wonder if she will ever have an identity of her own, whether she will ever meet an appropriate suitor. When the family returns to Amsterdam, it seems like her time may have come, but sometimes life gets in the way, and soon it becomes clear that not only is she her mother's companion, assistant and student she will be responsible for the protection of her ongoing legacy.

This is not necessarily an easy read. There is lots of details around the insects, about the printing processes and techniques and more. It is a book that feels pretty meaty but for me that was one of the things I loved about it. 

I also love it when you are reading great historical fiction and you find yourself going off to Google to search for information after reading about something and that is what happened with this book. This is especially true give that this book tells the story of real women from history.

I found myself searching for information about things like the Labatists religious community. Another thing that I learnt about was the existence of the Dutch West Indies Company. I feel like I know a bit about the Dutch East Indies Company, particularly given some of the history where Dutch explorers found the West Australian coat, and being involved in Indonesian history and more. I can't say I knew a lot about the Dutch West Indies Company. In a way, I would think it should be more well known given that the Dutch West Indies were responsible for founding New Amsterdam, which in time became New York, but it isn't really.

I also found myself searching for more information about Suriname, as I am not sure I could have said where it was prior to reading this book.

After having read about it in this book, I have added a place to visit next we go to Amsterdam to visit my brother in law and his family, which may be as soon as later this year. Hortus Botanicus is the oldest botannical gardens in the world and I definitely intend to go and explore at some point.

I am so glad that I got to read this book, and I am very interested to explore Melissa Ashley's backlist. It seems as though she rights about fascinating women from history, and I am looking forward to reading more.

I will be sharing this review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Rating 5/5

About the book

Amsterdam, at the turn of the 18th century. For as long as she can remember, Dorothea Graff has lived in service to her mother, Maria Sibyilla Merian, one of the greatest naturalists in Europe. But as she collects insects and colours illustrations for Maria’s world-famous publications, Dorothea longs for a life that is truly her own.

When Maria becomes entranced by the plant and insect life of Suriname, she is determined to record it for herself, taking Dorothea with her. All the family’s savings are ploughed into the dangerous expedition, but greatness is never achieved without sacrifice. The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname will be Maria’s masterpiece, but ensuring its legacy – and her own survival – will become her daughter’s burden. When offered a chance of happiness, will Dorothea have the courage to take it, and risk everything her mother built?

From the jungles of South America to the bustling artists’ studios of Amsterdam, The Naturalist of Amsterdam gives voice to the long-ignored women who shaped our understanding of the natural world – both the artists and those who made their work possible.


  1. I was always learn things from good historical fiction! Sounds like this one took you on a similar journey.

  2. It was a very good journey!

  3. Interesting - can't say as I've read anything on this subject before. Thanks for the review!

    1. It's so nice to read something that is different to whatever else is out there!