Set in Amsterdam in 1636, Tulip Fever is a novel of passion and deception in Amsterdam, right as the craze for tulips occurs, at a time when the Dutch were some of the wealthiest people in the early modern world. Sophia is the wife of Cornelis Sandvoort, a prosperous merchant who commissions a portrait to be painted of him and his wife. In the process, Sophia falls in love with the painter, Jan van Loos. Their relationship is carried on with the complicity of the maid, Maria, and has consequences for everyone, both in the house and outside it.
I was a little put off by the present-tense narration, and the fact that the point of view kept changing so often. But the more I read, the more I enjoyed this book. The book is sad in tone, and skimps on characterization. But the books excels in terms of plot and setting—every little nuance of 17th-century Amsterdam is described in deep detail. It’s a well-written novel, but the story is simply told at the same time.
There are a few unlikely coincidences and ironic plot twists in this novel, which I won’t go into for fear of spoiling the plot. Suffice it to say that I didn’t really believe it as a plot device. And the metaphors sometimes got a bit out of control (comparing a lute hanging on the wall to a pregnant woman, for example). And the author didn’t really delve all that deeply into the tulip madness—though I know this is a nvel, and she probably didn’t have time or space for that kind of exposition. But I actually did, in a strange way, enjoy this novel of passion that proves that greed corrupts us all. An excellent work of nonfiction about the tulip obsession is Tulipomania, by Mike Dash.