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Novelists' interest in Vermeer continues to bloom

TULIP FEVER By Deborah Moggach Delacorte Press 282 pp., $21.95

Too bad this charming book doesn't have illustrations - it has everything else: romance, erudition, passion, comedy, greed, suspense, intrigue, history, and a message. Nicely written, too.

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Even without pictures, you'll see the paintings that play their part in the drama. They echo some of the best of Jan Vermeer's evocative depictions of 17th-century Dutch interiors - particularly the woman reading a letter and the intimate domestic scenes of mistress and maid.

Readers tuned in to the plot-behind-the-painting trend ("Girl with a Pearl Earring," "Girl in Hyacinth Blue") will see "Tulip Fever" as an enchanting third in a series. The story imagines the lives of a wealthy Dutch burgher, Cornelis Sandvoort, and his lovely young wife, Sophia, at the time of the great tulip mania in Holland. To record his marital bliss, Cornelis commissions a talented painter, named Jan van Loos, to capture the couple on canvas. But as speculation in tulip futures grows to dizzying heights, illicit love between the unhappy wife and the hapless artist grows to dizzy disaster. The affairs of a buxom maid and her fishmonger suitor add to the complications but also lead to a just conclusion.

In chapters headed with apt aphorisms from ancient wisdom ("Life is half spent before we know what it is," Jacob Cats, 1632), Deborah Moggach, who has 12 previous novels to her credit, tells her tale in episodes seen through the eyes of the principal characters. The multiple perspective adds an extra dimension to her clever, multilevel fable of folly.

But even if you don't mind the moral, "Tulip Fever" is a fun read.

*Ruth Johnstone Wales is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society