“The world is chaotic. All artists know this, but they try to make sense of it. Sophia has made sense of it for him. She has stitched it together like the most beautiful cloak. Her love has sewn it together and they can wrap it around themselves and be safe from the world. Nobody can reach them.”
Written by Deborah Moggach and originally published in 1999, Tulip Fever is a tale of art, beauty, lust, greed, deception and retribution. Set in 1630s Amsterdam ablaze with tulip fever, the story follows a wealthy merchant, Cornelis Sandvoort, and his young and beautiful wife, Sophia, the woman he hopes will bring him the joy that not even his considerable fortune can buy, an heir. But so far, Sophia has failed to produce one. In a bid for immortality, he commissions a portrait of them both by the talented young painter Jan van Loos. But as Van Loos begins to capture Sophia’s likeness on canvas, a slow passion begins to burn between the beautiful young wife and the talented artist.
This following post is a review of only the book. You can read my review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book here.
A story of ambition, desire, deception, heartbreak and tragedy, Tulip Fever is a thriller set in a shadowy 17-century Denmark that’s set against the backdrop of an exhilarating historical period known as Tulipmania.
It’s a very atmospheric novel full of descriptive imagery. However, what Moggach fails to do is detail the phenomena of Tulipmania in a substantial way. Amsterdam in the 1630s was considered one of the richest cities in the world, with Tulipmania filling citizen’s pockets with large amounts of money. They were becoming more civilized, filling their lives with music and their homes with art, as painters became sought after to paint the portraits of the wealthy. It’s an incredible interest period of history, but whilst the book uses the period as a backdrop to the story successfully, it fails to capture the exciting and lively time of this speculative bubble.
Told in alternating chapters narrated by Sophia in first person, Maria in third, and Cornelis in third, the book uses short chapters to ensure that something is constantly going on with its various dramas revolving around its main characters.
With Moggach’s prose working like a piece of art itself, she focuses on every detail of the picture she is trying to paint, using poetic language to really set the scene of her story. She doesn’t manage to detail her characters quite so well, though. Because we don’t have time to get to know Sophia beforehand and her affair with Jan happens quite briskly, she comes across as merely a bored housewife. This is common for characters in this time period, but this doesn’t make her the most likeable narrator. Cornelis doesn’t have much personality, either. He seems like a good man, but it’s difficult to empathise with either character when they don’t feel so full of life.
The trouble is that the character’s motives aren’t strong enough. I like the concept of mistaken identity and deceit with the thriller twist in a 17th-century setting, but because of the story’s historical backdrop, it feels as though Moggach plays it quite safe, intentionally making the story plainer, her characters more boring, and avoiding the passion and lust that a story like this could have.
The tone doesn’t always work, with Moggach’s old-fashioned narrative sometimes ruining the moment. Her descriptions of sex and use of crude jokes, with words like “lover’s seed”, “joystick”, and comments of Sophia feeling “damp”, although they suit the setting well, feel cringey and come across as comical rather than erotic.
There’s a lot about this book I do like, but it’s the way that the more contemporary story of deceit merges with its historical setting that I get a little lost. The balance just isn’t there, as the book tries to be two very different things without successfully reaching the potential of either. The characters’ emotions and our connection to them feel stunted because of the old-fashioned setting and prose, whilst the backdrop of Tulipmania feels underused amongst all of the drama.