Deborah Moggach's Tulip Fever takes place in 17th-century Amsterdam, where roguish Rembrandt wannabes like Jan van Loos are just waiting to fall into ticklish situations. In this case, a paunchy merchant named Cornelis Sandvoort wanders into the artist's studio, hoping to impress posterity with a portrait of himself and his young wife. Apart from the fat commission, which van Loos can use, there is the bride to consider. Beautiful and bored, Sophia is easily swayed by his youthful passion--but this time, the raffish van Loos actually falls in love with one of his sexual conquests. The two carry out their affair with increasing doses of rashness and deception, meanwhile becoming dependent on the complicity of a servant, the astonishing gullibility of the old man, and the fast cash to be made on the tulip-bulb exchange.
The plot of Moggach's 13th novel neatly matches the speculative frenzy of the period, careening from one improbable thrill to the next. It was, to be sure, a time of stunning economic lunacy, when a single Semper Augustus bulb could be sold for "six fine horses, three oxheads of wine, a dozen sheep, two dozen silver goblets and a seascape by Esaias van de Velde." The author expertly dabs in this sort of period detail, and her chapter epigraphs quote some charming 17th-century Dutch sources on morals and conventional wisdom. Indeed, it's these quasi-surreal touches--whales washing up on the coast, chimney pots toppling into the street, women rubbing goose fat into their hands--that make the lovers' overheated sentiments so plausible. "For centuries to come," the narrator says, "people will gaze at these paintings and wonder what is about to happen." Tulip Fever gives us the chance to do exactly that. --John Ponyicsanyi [via]