The Tulip Eaters
This novel opens with a poignant diary entry from WWII talking about a family so hungry they were forced to dig tulip bulbs from the ground to find something to eat. That is an outstanding setup for letting us know just how desperate a time that was in Holland. Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn’t live up to that level of skill or tension.
Her nightmare begins on an ordinary day. Pediatric surgeon Nora de Jong longs for nothing more than to hold her infant daughter when she returns home from work to find her mother has been murdered. Not just murdered but partially scalped. Chunks of her lovely gray hair have been left in bloody clumps all over the living room. As Nora cries and holds her mother she slowly comes to a realization – her daughter isn’t crying. Where is Rose? Nora desperately searches the house but it soon becomes clear that her daughter is missing. But there is a third person in the house – the body of an unknown man who apparently died in the struggle with her mother. But who is he and what is he doing there?
Over the coming days the local police offer Nora no hope. The man’s prints are not in the system. The only clue to who he was is the Dutch money found in his pocket. Since her parents had emigrated from Holland after the war Nora comes to the conclusion that the clue to what has happened to Rose lies in her mom and dad’s past. Searching the attic of her mother’s home reveals a locked metal box in a dark corner. Papers within the box show her mother to be a former member of the NSB (Dutch Nazi Party) and her father to be wanted for the murder of a man called Abram. When the police and FBI refuse to treat this information with the seriousness that Nora feels it deserves she boards a plane to Amsterdam, determined to unravel the clues from the past to solve the mystery of the present.
The author seems to have researched Dutch culture and history, weaving not just facts from the past but bits of information about the present seamlessly into the story. While I am far from an authority on this subject the details seemed accurate and they provided a nice level of authenticity to the heritage of the tale. The history too seemed very detailed and authentic. One of the running themes of the book was that Anne Frank was only a small part of the story of the Dutch during the war. The author did a great job of filling us in on a great deal more of it. But the rest of the book? A complete hot mess.
The unbelievable nature of the tale begins with the police investigation into the crimes. While I realize the 1980s were virtually the Neolithic period (no, not really) there were police procedures in place by that time. One of those procedures, set into place way back in the 1930s, is that the FBI handles kidnapping. In this book it is primarily the police – the FBI are a nebulous force referred to but never seen. The police not only don’t seem to view Nora as a viable suspect (when a child, especially an infant goes missing, there is always the possibility it was killed), they don’t seem to even question her. She’s a single mom, isn’t it possible the father snatched the child?. Yet the paternity issue never comes up.
This brings us to another problem – the hot button issue of the secret baby. In this case Nora’s argument is that the dad didn’t want her in his life so couldn’t have the baby in his life either. I had been indifferent to Nora till that point but at that moment I really disliked her. For the rest of the novel she doesn’t do anything to change my opinion for the better. At one point in the book it says, “It drove home how long it had been since her (Nora’s) life with Nico.” Her daughter is six months old. Pregnancy is nine months long. It hasn’t even been two years since she had had sex with the man – hardly the forever the book tries to indicate. At another point she thinks, “Why did he have to be gone the one time she needed him most? Well, she’d do it alone. Where Rose was concerned hadn’t she always been on her own?” Apart from the fact that she lived with her mother and had had her help till the murder I hardly think it fair to accuse a man who doesn’t know about the existence of the child of abandonment. If she felt she had done it alone, she should remember she made the decision to do it that way. It also surprised me how instantly Nora turned against her parents – the mother who had cared lovingly for her baby for the last six months became an object of disgust once Nora learned about her association with the NSB. It seemed that in the space of a view pages her warm familial memories were replaced by a deep loathing based upon a handful of documents in an old box.
The plot felt rather farcical. Nora leaves Houston and jumps on a plane to Amsterdam in the middle of a kidnapping “investigation”, and I use quotation marks because someone calling you every so often to say “We have nothing” is not exactly brilliant police work. When in Amsterdam she has a series of ludicrous encounters, meets up with someone from her past with an overly convenient back story and becomes the heroine of the day. I felt my suspension of disbelief break every other page.
Rounding out my difficulties with the tale are the villains. This isn’t a case of just disliking the bad guy but the fact that the villains are written as caricatures. They should be sympathetic, their behavior motivated by revenge against the people whom they believe to have turned them in to the Nazis. But these people are just plain crazy, stupid– and mean. One in particular disappointed me – weak willed, selfish and nuts. That is not a fun combination to have to read.
To sum up, the plot is completely farfetched, the characters unsympathetic. The WWII history is fascinating but not enough to carry an entire novel. If you are interested in the subject, I recommend reading a history book instead.