Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach

Good novels read themselves; bad novels require work. Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever, a bad novel, required work. In fairness to the novel, as a historical romance, it’s not the genre I often read. But I wanted to read Tulip Fever, because there’s a film based on it that stars Alicia Vikander as the female lead. I’ve seen Vikander in Ex Machica (2014), where her performance of the android Ava help make it a great science fiction films. Earlier this year, I saw her star as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. Though I thought the movie lacked luster, Vikander’s performance as Lara Croft was the movie’s most promising element. Like her husband, Michael Fassbender, she’s an actor who caught my attention and whose career I hope to follow. So I want to see Tulip Fever, but as readers of this blog know, whenever possible, I prefer to read the novel first.

In theory, Tulip Fever, at only 246 pages, should’ve been an easy novel to finish in a week, but in practice, I found myself so uninterested in it that I spent my reading time reading other novels. Or cleaning the kitchen. Or running an errand. Or distracting myself with computer games, YouTube videos, or Netflix TV series. I had to force myself to read Tulip Fever. The novel lost me early and never regained me. If it wasn’t a pastime of mine to review novels for this blog, I would’ve stopped reading it. It would’ve sit in my e-reader, unread, collecting virtual dust, making me feel guilty every time I see its title. You bought me. Why not read me? Wanting to avoid that guilt is another reason I forced myself to finish Tulip Fever. Once I start reading a novel, I hate abandoning it.

But, man, was it work!

Tulip Fever is a novel, but it also works as a collection of clichés. The entire novel was a cliché. A young woman, for financial reasons, marries a rich man old enough to be her father–if not grandfather–but lacking passion with him, she finds a lover her age. A plot isn’t a cliché just because it was done before–there are very few plots in this world, so writers are always reusing them–but Moggach’s superficial characterizations makes Tulip Fever feel banal and contrived. Banal because the characters lack individuality. Contrived because the ploy they use so she can leave her husband and run off with her lover would never work. It was so unrealistic that I have trouble believing these characters would attempt it.

I think the novel could’ve redeemed itself with local color. I like historical novels. Before opening its pages, I was looking forward to reading about 17th Century Amsterdam. I trust Moggach performed the necessary research to bring the setting alive, but there wasn’t enough local color to satisfy me. Her descriptions of Amsterdam felt as vague as her character development.

Years ago, shortly after starting this blog, I reviewed a novel by Harold Robbins called The Betsy. For whatever reason, that is my most-read post. People are still reading it about twice as often as anything else I wrote. I have no idea why. In no way is it my best work. I hated The Betsy as I hate Tulip Fever. I think the two novels are compatible. Both read more like fantasy than fiction. I don’t mean fantasy in the same sense the Harry Potter novels are fantasy, or The Game of Thrones is fantasy. The Betsy reads like an extended masculine fantasy, equipped with fast cars, faster women, great wealth, and award-winning bourbon. Tulip Fever reads like an extended feminine fantasy, equipped with a passionate lover, beautiful dresses, beautiful homes, and award-winning flowers. Neither novel strives for realism. Neither novel seems to understand the complexity of romantic relationships. And neither novel seems to worry about its failings. Both novels feel targeted to an audience that the writer knows and understands.

I do not begrudge Robbins or Moggach their success, but as I can’t recommend The Betsy, I can’t recommend Tulip Fever. If historical romance is a genre you love to read, you’re probably enjoy this novel more than I did. I still intend to see the movie. I’ll let you know how that goes. Along with Vikander, it has a great cast that includes Dane DeHaan, Christoph Waltz, and Judi Dench. Plus I have a theory: Good novels make bad movies; bad novels make good movies. And Tulip Fever was a bad novel.

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