The scene is 17th century Amsterdam, and the only flower that anyone cares about is the tulip. It has created wealth, it has created businessmen, it has created corruption.
Moggach takes us into the sumptuous world of art, love, money and lust as we follow the story of Cornelis, an elderly merchant who commissions a talented painter to preserve his marriage and his status on canvas. Cornelis enjoys surrounding himself with the symbols of his own success, one of which is his much younger wife, the beautiful Sophia.But when the artist comes, Sophia’s world changes forever and she can no longer hold onto her sense of duty that has kept her with the aging Cornelis. Moggach masterfully depicts a naive young Sophia’s mind: “I submit to his embraces, of course, for I am a dutiful wife and shall always be grateful to him. The world is treacherous and he reclaimed me, as we reclaimed our country from the sea…” and shows how she struggles internally when Jan begins to pursue her. There is an air of Phillippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl) in this book – the heady, dangerous feel of the burgeoning affair, the cloud of unease that begins to hang over the characters as they dart around each other; one begins to feel that this cannot and will not end well.
Moggach’s writing is exciting, evocative and addictive; the plot paces itself well, keeping the reader anxiously turning the pages whilst invoking a vivid picture of 17th century Amsterdam and all of its details – from the shiny blue hyacinths glinting in the sunny streets to the roaring ocean which belches up whales, the cloudy pubs where tulip bulbs are to be found bulging in pockets, the women fondling fruit amongst the flapping cloths of the market stalls. It’s an environment to immerse yourself in, but one that will make your stomach churn; the tension towards the end is at times nearly unbearable, and the poignant moments of snatched time between the lovers make you wish that things were different. But Moggach is a realist; she doesn’t sugarcoat the story, and when the ending comes it will bring a lump to your throat. This is beautifully written novel with an unusual setting that will really transport the reader.