Deborah Moggach's Tulip Fever
takes place in 17th-century Amsterdam, where roguish Rembrandt wannabes like Jan van Loos are just waiting to fall into ticklish situations. In this case, a paunchy merchant named Cornelis Sandvoort wanders into the artist's studio, hoping to impress posterity with a portrait of himself and his young wife. Apart from the fat commission, which van Loos can use, there is the bride to consider. Beautiful and bored, Sophia is easily swayed by his youthful passion--but this time, the raffish van Loos actually falls in love with one of his sexual conquests. The two carry out their affair with increasing doses of rashness and deception, meanwhile becoming dependent on the complicity of a servant, the astonishing gullibility of the old man, and the fast cash to be made on the tulip-bulb exchange.
The plot of Moggach's 13th novel neatly matches the speculative frenzy of the period, careening from one improbable thrill to the next. It was, to be sure, a time of stunning economic lunacy, when a single Semper Augustus bulb could be sold for "six fine horses, three oxheads of wine, a dozen sheep, two dozen silver goblets and a seascape by Esaias van de Velde." The author expertly dabs in this sort of period detail, and her chapter epigraphs quote some charming 17th-century Dutch sources on morals and conventional wisdom. Indeed, it's these quasi-surreal touches--whales washing up on the coast, chimney pots toppling into the street, women rubbing goose fat into their hands--that make the lovers' overheated sentiments so plausible. "For centuries to come," the narrator says, "people will gaze at these paintings and wonder what is about to happen." Tulip Fever gives us the chance to do exactly that. --John Ponyicsanyi
From Publishers Weekly
Although Moggach, a well-known TV writer and prolific novelist in her native Britain, has published here before, this book, a bestseller at home last year, is the one that is likely to be her breakout on this side of the water. It is yet another story set in 17th-century Holland involving a real-life artist, Jan van Loos. But whereas such books as Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring concentrate on an artist's work, this is a headlong romantic drama that uses the painting of a portrait simply as a jumping-off point. Van Loos comes to paint Sophia, the pretty young wife of wealthy burger Cornelius Sandvoort, which starts a train of events that will irredeemably change all their lives. Sophia and the artist fall hopelessly in love; the Sandvoorts' servant, Maria, is having a child by a man who, thinking himself betrayed by her, has run off and joined the navy; meanwhile, Cornelius has always longed for a child. Out of these circumstances, the infatuated couple formulate a plot, but one that depends on getting together a great deal of money in a short time; hence, the frenzied speculation in the value of new and rare breeds of tulip that gives the book its title. Moggach puts all this together in a series of brief, breathless chaptersApacking in skillfully presented facts, atmosphere and colorAeach told from a different point of view: even the hapless drunk who brings the whole scheme crashing down around Jan's and Sophia's ears is given his moment in the limelight, and the figure of the elderly, cuckolded lover is for once sympathetically drawn. The Amsterdam of the period is brought almost physically alive, and a wistful postlude looks back at all the romantic anguish from a serene distance. This is popular fiction created at a high pitch of craft and rapid readability. Movie rights sold to Steven Spielberg. (Apr.)
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