Books: The art of flowers arranging

Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach Heinemann, pounds 14.99, 259pp: Ruth Pavey tiptoes through a tulip novel to catch a scent of Dutch paintings and Restoration comedies
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The Independent Culture
UNLIKE POTATO blight or clematis wilt, tulip fever afflicts humans. If tulipomania, an improbable speculative craze in 17th-century Holland, has not returned, there is certainly a current revelling in its quirky and colourful story. After Anna Pavord's celebrated history, Deborah Moggach now publishes a novel which borrows some of its drama from the dizzy rise and fall of the tulip as a commodity. Since Steven Spielberg has bought the film rights, it may be that tulips will once again be associated with startling amounts of money.

However, Moggach's novel owes a greater debt to Dutch painters, notably Vermeer and De Hooch, than to tulips. They contribute both to making the book look good (with 16 colour plates) and to much of Moggach's imagery. A further debt is to 17th-century drama, with sub-plots turning on cuckoldry, disguise, and the relationship between mistress and maid.

The story opens with the talk of a painting. The elderly merchant, Cornelis, has decided to have a portrait made of himself and his beautiful young second wife, Sophia. Sophia, naturally, has not been consulted. She takes the news calmly and the trouble does not begin until the painter, Jan, turns out to be everything Cornelis is not; young, attractive, impetuous.

Jan has only to hold Sophia's slippered foot for a moment, and the virtuous wife's resolve to be good to the old man who has saved her family from ruin starts to crumble. What is less likely, perhaps, given what we know of Jan's freewheeling past, is that he too falls in love.

Down in the kitchen, the maidservant Maria is also full of romance. Her Willem is only a poor fishmonger. Maria likes to preen in front of mirrors wearing Sophia's clothes, and is too realistic to think that marriage without money will be fun. So she is delighted to hear Willem's plans for "a business venture". He does not elaborate, but it transpires there is more money in tulips than fish.

Conventionally enough, all does not go well for either couple. Less conventionally, the resolution is not one of happy endings all round. In a novel more notable for its good humoured liveliness and assurance than for its depths of feeling, it is the least likely character who stands out as the most sympathetic. In a Restoration comedy, the pedantic old cuckold would be nothing more than a figure of fun. But Moggach, who knows how to write about loss, makes Cornelis much more believable when she reveals what griefs he has had to endure. He has lost everything once, and is being set up to do so again. It is an altogether pleasing touch, in a perhaps too easily pleasing novel, that Cornelis is the one who will have the last laugh.