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The Coffee Trader    by David Liss order for
Coffee Trader
by David Liss
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2004 (2003)
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* *   Reviewed by Barbara Lingens

In The Coffee Trader, David Liss has given us a very interesting portrait of commerce in Amsterdam in the 1600s. But even more interesting is how the habits of commerce reflect back on life. If it is all right to dissemble while doing business, is it also all right in our private life? Where is the line to be drawn?

Miguel is a Jew from Portugal who fled the Inquisition, and whose brother and wife followed him to tolerant Amsterdam. There the Portuguese Jewish community has banded together for protection but in doing so stifles the people by not allowing them to have commerce with the Dutch. Miguel, who to his way of thinking tries to do right by everyone, is caught between his need to earn money and his religious group's demands. His brother is no friend; his friends no longer trust him because he has lost the money they loaned him. One of his former associates is mad for revenge against him, another uses him for his own purposes, while a leader of the community is suspicious of his interest in the as yet unknown commodity, coffee.

These vengeful characters act upon Miguel as he tries to make his way to a great fortune. Though he keeps his wits about him and has a moment of triumph, it is short-lived when he realizes he has wronged many people in the process. Amsterdam's business practices seem very modern, yet the author persuasively puts us in the setting of the time. The economic practices described are not that simple to understand, which makes David Liss's achievement all the more remarkable, because we know exactly what Miguel is trying to do even when the others in the story do not.

The Coffee Trader, provides a good look at the costumes, customs and religious difficulties of a people set apart.

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