This quiet novel is, I believe, one of Anne Fine's best. It's a balanced and sensitive exploration of friendship and families: what it means to destroy and what it is to be reborn.
Natalie, the protagonist of this novel, is a quiet and introverted child - a member of a busy hotel-manager's family, somewhat neglected. At the age of eight she meets Tulip, a bright, original outsider. From the first, Tulip enchants Natalie with her ideas for games and her spark of mischief. Natalie's parents encourage the friendship, knowing something about Tulip's dysfunctional family and miserable home life. Before long, Tulip has closed Natalie off from her schoolmates and family - Natalie, though, is happy in this unusual friendship. Yet as time passes, Tulip's streaks of malice and cruelty begin to show as her home life deteriorates.
Tulip and Natalie are the main characters in this drama: in the background we see parents, classmates, police officers and other figures, but these are generally sketches. That is my main quibble with this book: none of the characters except our central duo seem truly developed, or are sufficient to hold readers' interest. Perhaps this is intentional, but it annoyed me personally. In an interesting introduction to my edition, Anne Fine writes that Tulip and Natalie seemed to "spring to life" almost as soon as she began to write the novel. She notes that they show the qualities of a good author. Tulip is a compulsive and brilliant liar (and, Fine says, "what is a novel but a tissue of lies telling the truth?"). Also, Natalie "has the strength to look on something painful and not turn away". One of a writer's greatest and most needed qualities.
The Tulip Touch is an unusual tale, raising many moral questions - does true evil exist? Are we born with our personalities or are they shaped by our upbringing? What is evil? Why, as Natalie demands at the end of the novel, does a person's state have to become desperate before he or she is given help? Cleverly, Anne Fine (an educated, opinionated atheist who disbelieves in the concept of evil) makes clear her views while leaving the reader to decide his or her own answers to these difficult questions.
Four stars for the plot and characters, and an additional star for the fantastic descriptions found throughout the book.