In its title, Tulip Fever refers to the volatile market for tulips as investments that developed while the Dutch Republic was enjoying a Golden Age, its greatest economic, political, and cultural success. In the novel, set in Amsterdam in 1636, forbidden passion also flowers within the household of a respectable burgher. Cornelis Sandvoort, a prosperous merchant, hires an artist, Jan van Loos, to paint a portrait of him and his childless young wife, Sophia. At twenty-four, Sophia feels little more than gratitude toward her sixty-one-year-old husband, but she and Jan are soon ardent, furtive lovers. Tulip Fever is the story of how Sophia and Jan plot to outwit Cornelis and run off together. A simulated pregnancy and the city's tulipmania are essential elements in the scheme, as are Sophia's lovelorn maid, Maria, and Jan's ingenuous apprentice, Jacob.
English novelist Deborah Moggach has herself created an efficient device to induce her reader to turn the pages. She advances the story through short, terse chapters that provide basic information and provoke curiosity. The novel's point of view alternates, somewhat awkwardly, between Sophia's narration and an objective account. The character of the painter Jan, an acquaintance of Rembrandt, provides the pretext for fleeting meditations on art's ability to transform and transfix life. Tulip Fever derives its own life less from the limning of complex characters than from a spirited story worked out against the background of an exuberant era.