I’ve starting reading the world again, and my first stop along the way is Holland (aka The Netherlands, The Lowlands, the homeland of the Dutch, etc.). I was thrilled to find out that Alexandre Dumas (Pere) wrote a book placed in this country: The Black Tulip. I’m a fan of both The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, so I had reasonable expectations for this book.
Dr. Cornelius van Baerle’s fruitful creation of the legendary black tulip is set against the tumultuous backdrop of Holland’s “Year of Disaster” of 1672.
I was meh about this book. The historic re-rendering of the murder of the De Witt brothers was quite vivid and interesting, but the fictional parts of the story were less interesting. If you’re looking for the action of The Three Musketeers or the intrigue of The Count of Monte Cristo, you won’t find it here.
The hero was pretty run of the mill. There was nothing wrong with Cornelius van Baerle; he just wasn’t very three dimensional. Now Rosa, who first comes into the story as a seemingly minor character, is truly fascinating. She might just be a jailer’s daughter, but from the first you see how intelligent and quick she is. While the above might not seem extraordinary to an enlightened audience, to a people set in the late 17th century—or even to the people of the mid-19th century when the book was published—a brilliant commoner who makes everything happen by dint of her own smarts and willpower (and a woman to boot) was revolutionary. She’s my favorite part of the story.
I also enjoyed the setting and sense of place and time. There’s the strong overtones of a heavily capitalist society caught between a monarchy and the stirrings of a democracy. You have the fanaticism of the tulip era layered upon the upheaval of the 1670s. You can feel the dense green of the lowlands, of the windmill-studded backdrop.
The storyline, unfortunately, was less exciting. I could see the writing on the paper (so to speak) from the first. The greatest mystery was how the story arc of breeding the perfect black tulip could dovetail with the take-over of William of Orange. Once that came out, the only hold over me was Rosa herself and the sappy love story (which I’m somewhat a sucker for).
The Black Tulip introduced me to the savagery and beauty of Holland. It established an image of the country in my head, which was what I wanted. The character development of Rosa made all the other lackluster characters bearable. So this book was average, provided a good sense of place, and had Rosa. It wouldn’t be my first choice of Alexandre Dumas books to read, but it had its good moments.