Monday, July 1, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach

My book club chose Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach for its last meeting, a historical novel set in 1630s Amsterdam, during the time of tulipomania–a bubble of speculation involving tulip bulbs. It falls into the category of novels about the-woman-behind-the-painting that are so popular. This time the artist is a young man named Jan van Loos. The woman is Sophia Sandvoort, the beautiful wife of the elderly and wealthy Dutch businessman Cornelis Sandvoort. Cornelis has already lost his first wife along with two sons to premature death. He married the much younger Sophia primarily because he wanted an heir, but her youth, beauty and sweetness have won him over completely. He loves her to distraction. Unfortunately, she has not gotten pregnant.

Cornelis hits on another scheme for achieving immortality. He hires a portrait painter, Jan van Loos. Cornelis and Sophia sit for this artist, but before the first session is over, Jan and Sophia have fallen in love. Before too much longer, they are sneaking around, betraying Cornelis.

Secondary characters include Sophia’s maid, a robust, passionate, country girl named Maria and a fish-seller, Willem, with whom she is in love. Their relationship is honest and uncomplicated, but they are poor.

Adultery and treachery set the stage for disaster. Sophia and Jan need money to escape from Cornelis. Maria, pregnant and desperate, is entrapped in their schemes. The lovers catch the tulipomania that has snared so many others. Gambling on tulips brings on a feverish greed that nearly eclipses the excitement of their affair. The stakes multiply until they are playing for lives.

I borrowed the book from the library a few weeks ago in preparation for book group. As it turned out, the book club met on the same day that I caught the plane for the Historical Novel Society Conference in Florida. I was going to miss our meeting. So do I still read the book?

It is historical fiction and the jacket flap description interested me. So, yes. When I returned from HNS, I started Tulip Fever. But I almost didn’t finish it.

Overall, my reaction to it is a bit mixed. It’s told from multiple viewpoints. Sophia is in first person and the other characters are in third person viewpoints. The chapters mostly bounce between characters but there are some omni chapters thrown in that are not really scenes but are descriptions of things or themes. The flow of the story does not really suffer from the constantly shifting POVs, but it’s difficult to care about the characters. Sophia, Jan, and Cornelis behave badly but with complete self-justification. Maria and Willem don’t behave badly so much as with a stereotypical country bumpkinism. Somewhere around page 100, I put the book down because it was too obvious where it was all going and I didn’t want to suffer along with these not very likeable people in a tragedy of their own making.

However, after reading House of Earth, I went back to Tulip Fever and I’m glad I did. Even though much of it played out predictably, the introduction of the tulip speculation and Sophia’s ill-fated plans to escape from her passionless marriage made the second half of the novel more interesting. I haven’t read about the tulip bubble before and delving into that piece of the past made this a worthwhile read after all.

This is my 18th novel for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry and my 14th book for the Library Reading Challenge hosted by Book Dragon’s Lair.


  1. I was originally interested in this book but was put off by the same factors you cited.

  2. Hmm, I'm not that interested in art so any book about art has to be amazing to work for me. I think I'll give this one a miss.