Review: The Black Tulip


In the past month I have discovered two beautiful romance stories written by the Dumas family.

Did you know that Alexandre Dumas’ son also became a writer? Neither did I, until I read Camille and it was stated in the introduction.

Alexandre Dumas, pere

It hardly seems fair that one family should produce stories so beautiful as The Black Tulip by Dumas Senior and Camille by his son, but I will talk about Camille later.

I waited a for quite while after finishing The Black Tulip before writing about it; I wanted to let it sit in my heart. Now I think that it’s time this beautiful piece of literature was talked about.

One of his lesser-known works–I had no idea about it until I found it by chance while scrolling the Kindle store–The Black Tulip has the elements of tension that make a good action novel and tragedy to give it a gothic tone.

All of this is softened, I believe, by the love story.

The object of conflict is a black tulip. I had never thought of it before, but having read Tulipomania by Mike Dash a couple of weeks later, I found out that it’s impossible for a completely black tulip to exist. The closest you can get to a black tulip is a very dark brown or purple one.

A ‘black tulip’; source

In this novel the main character, Cornelius, is a tulip-fancier during the tulip boom of Holland–a period of history in with a single bulb bred in a unique way would have been worth thousands to the tulip obsessed.

A contest is announced: there is a great money reward for anyone who can raise a black tulip, jet-black, not dark brown or purple. Cornelius is a genius with his tulips; he manages to raise three bulbs he claims will produce black tulips.

Before he can plant any of them to see if he has succeeded, he is arrested on suspicion of having betrayed the Prince of Orange.

a dark purple ‘black tulip’; source

Cornelius takes his precious tulip bulbs with him to prison as he awaits his fate.

Here he meets the jailor’s daughter, Rosa, and–suspecting that he will be put to death–he gives her the bulbs, telling her to turn them in as her own work and claim the money.

But he is not executed; the Prince takes pity on him and instead sends him away to a prison fortress for life.

Cornelius is in jail for a long time, wondering what became of Rosa and his tulip bulbs. One shudders to think of the boredom and loneliness he felt, locked away in a cell while innocent.

In his desperation for company, he uses some of the moldy bread given to him in order to attract some pigeons that will keep him company. He despairs; we can feel his despair. However, it won’t last forever.

“I’d rather have ten soldiers to guard than a single scholar.”

― Alexandre Dumas, The Black Tulip

Rosa’s father is appointed as jailor in the same prison where Cornelius is trapped. Rosa comes with him, and she has brought with her Cornelius’ treasures–the three tulip bulbs, unharmed and full of potential life.

This, reader, is where I could not put the book down: Cornelius tells Rosa how to grow a tulip, instructs her on the ideal soil to use and how much light the bulb needs, and together they raise one of the flowers from its bulb.

The imagery! I wanted to cry as they fell in love with prison bars between them, yet raised a live flower because of their collaboration. It reminded me that bars cannot stop love. 

I will not tell you how the story ends, only that it is worth reading this book because their love story is so beautiful.

I encourage you to look at the obscure classics, those books that might have been lost in time; you will find gems, and in some of them, such as The Black Tulip, you will find true love.

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola


The Belly of Paris is a unique, fast-paced novel about justice, revolution, and hunger. It is the third book in a 20-part series titled Les Rougon-Macqyart. The series examines two branches of a family: the respectable (legitimate) side, and the disreputable (illegitimate.)

The third installment follows Florent Quenu, a French convict who escaped exile in French Guiana after six years of imprisonment due to a false accusation. The novel opens with a scene after his return to Paris; in the scene, his unconscious body is found on a road by a merchant on her way to a marketplace called Les Halles.

61bziDAYLCL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_At once we feel pity for this man who is broken and lost in the world. He spends a great deal of time reminiscing on his horrific escape and the journey back home. Only when he acquires a job and independence does he find his personality, and in it we see how anger has blackened his heart. He wants to revolt against the government.

Quoting a paragraph from the novel, Florent is convinced that “it was his calling to avenge his thinness against this city that had grown fat while those who defended justice starved in exile, he was a self-appointed avenger, and he dreamed of rising up, right in Les Halles, and crushing this regime of drunks and gluttons.”

To understand Florent’s political motives, it is necessary to know about the author. Emile Zola was a major figure in the political liberalization of France. His views led him to become a controversial man, especially after the publication of his political article, J’acusse. The article called for exoneration of the falsely accused army officer Alfred Dreyfus. Following the backlash, Zola was persecuted for libel; he was forced to escape to England to avoid imprisonment.

The oddest thing about The Belly of Paris is its description. Zola can make the gloomiest scenes comical with his descriptions of food. Vegetables, cheese, beef–all are used to set the mood for good times and bad. What a character eats is a major element in describing their personalities–class and wealth are shown by whether they eat fresh sausage and cheese for dinner, or are forced to beg for leftovers.

The beautiful fruits were on display, delicately arranged with the roundness of their cheeks, half-hidden in the baskets like faces of beautiful children, partly concealed by leaves. The peaches were especially beautiful, peaches from Montreuil with clear, soft skin like northern girls’ and yellow sunburned peaches from the Midi, tanned like Provençal women. The apricots lying in moss had the amber glow of sunset shining on dark-haired girls.

Zola wanted to write a novel where the city of Paris herself was a character; in this book, he did a fantastic job. With poignant characters and backstories, he plays with readers’ emotions, blurring the line between right and wrong. One day I hope to read all twenty books and see the character of Paris as seen by one of the boldest authors of his time.

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