I started this book knowing very little about 1600s Dutch history, so I was grateful for Robin Buss’s introduction and the background it gave about the real-life characters Cornelius and Johan de Witt, who were killed by an angry mob in 1672 after Cornelius was accused of an assassination plot against William of Orange. In The Black Tulip, Cornelius de Witt is the godfather of our protagonist, Cornelius van Baerle, who cares not at all for politics and very much for tulips. (We learn that van Baerle tried being in the navy but decided it wasn’t for him: after a battle he thinks about how “after all this—after twenty ships shattered to pieces, after three thousand dead, after five thousand wounded—nothing had been settled either for or against, but that each side claimed victory, that everything had to be done all over again” – and he also considers “how much time is lost in blocking his ears and eyes by a man who wishes even to think while his fellows are letting off cannons at one another.”)

So van Baerle starts studying plants, and then happens “to choose one of the most elegant and costly of all the follies of his country and his time. He fell in love with tulips.” Luckily, he has a substantial amount of money to devote to his tulip obsession, and he’s a smart and patient guy, so tulip-growing suits him, and he’s excited when he learns that the Horticultural Society of Haarlem is offering a cash prize to the first person to grow a black tulip. He devotes himself to cultivating a tulip as black as jet, and he thinks he’s on the verge of achieving it, but then he’s arrested and imprisoned for his nonexistent political machinations, thanks to a jealous neighbor. Difficulties ensue, as does romance: the jailer has a pretty young daughter named Rosa, who is sweet and smart and determined.

Without going into too much detail about the plot, I will summarize the moral of the story thus: Crime doesn’t pay; learning to read does. I’d never read anything by Dumas before, so wasn’t familiar with his style at all, but I enjoyed the pacing of the story and his aphoristic asides, like this: “in the most banal speeches of politicians, their friends or enemies always try to find a ray of their real thoughts shining through, which they consequently think they can interpret—as if the hat of a politician was not a bushel designed to hide all light.” Or this: “Once a city has started applauding, it is the same as when it has started to hiss: it never knows when to stop.” I read this over the course of a few days when I found myself with a lot of solo free time because my husband was sick with covid/banished to the guest room, and I found it to be an absorbing way to pass the time.

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