Tulip Fever: Pretty plot, wilting characters

The Netherlands is a country gripped by Tulip mania while a house on the Herengracht is gripped by multiple love affairs. Deborah Moggach’s book Tulip Fever follows wealthy merchant Cornelis Sandvoort, his much younger and beautiful wife Sophia, their servant Maria and the painter hired to memorialise the household. But just like the tulip bubble will ultimately pop, so will the lives of those living along the canal.

Sandvoort hires the (fictional) Jan van Loos to commemorate himself and his wife in a portrait. (There is an actual Dutch painter by the same name who lives 100 years after the events in the novel.) Jan and Sophia fall in love instantly and embark on an affair which ends tragically.

It’s an engaging story and an easy read. Moggach intersperses the text with images of paintings from the time, ranging from Johannes Vermeer to Pieter de Hooch.

The book is a simple read in part because there is little character development between the main trio. Sophia and Jan are completely taken with each other with little explanation as to what they see in one another. The secondary characters, Maria and her love interest, Willem, have richer personalities.

Moggach doesn’t shy away from frank descriptions. When Sophia and Jan finally find a way to have an evening alone together, he unties her hair while she “squat[s] on his nightpot.” Cornelis wants his young wife to produce for him an heir, and Moggach gives the reader an extended military metaphor when depicting the acts taken to hopefully produce a child.

Tulip Fever is not the only book describing love, lust and loss during the time of the Dutch Golden Age. There is Van Rijn which follows a young publisher who becomes obsessed with painter Rembrandt and wants to uncover his secrets and the blockbuster Girl with a Pearl Earring which imagines the identity of the girl who gazes out of the famous 17th-century painting by Johannes Vermeer.

Girl with a Pearl Earring and Tulip Fever were both published in 1999 and the authors made a bet with each other over whose book would be made into a film first. Tracy Chevalier took Moggach out to a fancy lunch when the movie Girl with a Pearl Earring came out in 2003. Tulip Fever would eventually follow in 2017.

If you like a plot-driven historical romance, Tulip Fever is a pleasurable read. You can get your copy at the American Book Center.

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