Tulip Fever ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Tulip Fever is a novel by Deborah Moggach set in picturesque Amsterdam, Holland, in the year 1636. Cornelis Sandvoort is a wealthy merchant. At sixty-one, he is in the twilight of his years. His young wife, Sophia, is only twenty-six. Cornelis lost his first wife and child to disease; he wants nothing more than for Sophia to give him another child to carry on his name and his business after he is gone. Sophia honors and respects Cornelis—after all, he saved her family from poverty—but she doesn’t love him. She finds his physical presence repellant.
When Cornelis commissions a young painter, Jan Van Loos, to paint his and Sophia’s portrait, Sophia quickly becomes enamored of the painter. She falls so easily. She sneaks out of the house at odd times to meet the painter. They become lovers. She goes to great pains to make sure her husband doesn’t find out.
Sophia has a maid named Maria. Maria has a lover named Willem. Maria and Willem are intimate together and plan on being married. Maria finds herself expecting Willem’s child. Willem, through a misunderstanding, believes that Maria has been unfaithful to him with another man. Heartbroken, he runs off and joins the navy, not even knowing that Maria is going to have his baby.
Sophia tells Maria she will soon have to leave the household since she is going to have a baby and isn’t married. With nothing to lose, Maria threatens to expose Sophia for carrying on a clandestine love affair with the painter Jan Van Loos. Rather than part on bitter terms, Sophia and Maria together devise a plan whereby Sophia will pretend to be pregnant (by her husband, of course), while concealing Maria’s pregnancy. Then, when Maria’s baby is born, they will pretend it is Sophia’s and that Sophia died during the delivery. Pretending to be dead, Sophia will then be free to run off with her lover, Jan Van Loos, to Batavia in the East Indies and start a new life.
While Sophia and Jan’s elaborate deception plays out, the city (Amsterdam) and the country (Holland) are in the grip of “tulip fever.” Fortunes are being made and lost in tulip bulb speculation. Some bulbs are worth a fortune. Never has the adage “a thing is worth what somebody is willing to pay for it” been more appropriate. Jan is counting on one fabulously expensive bulb (which he plans on selling for much more than he paid for it) to get him out of debt and pay for his and Sophia’s passage to a new country and a new life. Their plot to trick Sophia’s husband—and the world—has worked so far. All they need is a bit more luck and for Jan’s bumbling servant, Gerrit, to pick up the bulb and bring it to Jan.
Tulip Fever is a tautly written 280 pages. The themes of infidelity, greed, self-delusion and human failing that we see here are universal. Jan and Sophia’s illicit love affair was one thing, but their plan to fool Sophia’s husband with Maria’s baby and then to run away to another country was something else. Failure was built in from the beginning. A strong story about the extraordinary lengths to which people will go to achieve their own version of happiness.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp