In Amsterdam during the 1630s, fortunes were made and lost speculating on tulips. While comparisons are often made between the “tulip crash” of 1637 and the stock market’s plunge in 1929, reading a fictional account of the craze was quite informative. But while I loved the unique setting and enjoyed all the factoids I learned, in the end I was disappointted to find that Tulip Fever was just another adultery story.
Sophia is a seventeenth century trophy wife – a woman of twenty-four with a sixty-one-year-old husband. While she has never really loved her husband Cornelis, she is grateful to him for rescuing her from poverty and supporting her mother and sisters. She doesn’t particularly enjoy his nightly advances, but she submits to them willingly. Then one day Cornelis decides to have their portrait painted by the handsome artist, Jan Van Loos. Before you know it (literally, it takes only days) Sophia is sneaking out to tryst with Jan.
Meanwhile, Sophia’s maid Maria also has problems. She has been sleeping with a fish seller who has promised to make an honest woman out of her. But then she finds she’s pregnant – and her lover has suddenly disappeared. When Maria tells Sophia about her pregnancy, Sophia first feels that she must turn Maria out. But Maria knows about Sophia’s affair with Jan, and threatens to tell Cornelis if she is dismissed. So Sophia cooks up a daring plan involving an elaborate deception and wild tulip speculation. If her plan succeeds, Sophia will be free to live with her lover in an island paradise. However, it would take only one false move to make the whole plan fail.
The unique setting of Tulip Fever is very interesting. Amsterdam and its citizens are brought to life in vivid detail. But while there is plenty of history, it never overwhelms the story. In fact, I would have liked hearing even more about tulip speculation. I can understand why people would speculate about the future of gold or food products, but it’s a little hard to understand exactly why tulips were so expensive.
The problem with this book is that when you strip it of its interesting setting it is really just a depressing story about adultery. While I am not a reader who refuses to read books that include adultery as part of the story line, there is a difference between books that have adultery as one plot element and books that are about adultery. This book falls into the latter category. A recent At the Back Fence column discussed how romance readers often feel unsatisfied with mainstream, contemporary literature, and this book could be exhibit A. About ten years ago, incest seemed to be all the rage, but lately adultery books are more plentiful. Personally I blame The Bridges of Madison County, which has had no shortage of imitators; I’ve compared it to at least two other books that I’ve reviewed. Like the other imitators, this book is really just about a woman who cuckolds an old but perfectly nice man who loves her.
I don’t necessarily believe that every book must have a happy ending to be enjoyable, or that all lead characters must be moral paragons. But setting aside, this story has been told before, and to me the adultery plot line is getting a little tired. I couldn’t help wondering what the story would have been like if the characters had made different choices. Unless you really enjoy books about infidelity, I’d avoid this one.