Seduced by Research, Not Character Development


The Coffee Trader, by David Liss

One of the biggest temptations to fall into as a writer of historical fiction or a fictionalized period piece is to become too enamored of your research into that historical era. Even modern non-fiction set in a given era must draw heavily on its human drama, not tangential history that adds little to the story to be told.

In The Coffee Trader, author Liss has two main objectives: to depict seventeenth century Jewish culture in the Netherlands, and to demonstrate that era’s Dutch version of commodities trading. The story he weaves into this culture and era is presented effectively enough: jealousy between brothers, a cuckolded husband, and an abandoned Dutch wife. In Liss’ hands the story itself approaches a soap opera (not a bad commercial strategy), with occasional passages adding character elements to the overarching fiction piece.


Liss’ writing is intelligent, sometimes excellent, but he sometimes strains in creating character voices true to the story’s milieu. His dialogue occasionally submits to turgidity; and (fair warning, writers out there) too often he uses dialogue to explain cultural minutiae best left to narrative. Sadly I never lost myself within Liss’ writing of that era.

My rating: 13 of 20 stars


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