Saturday, March 10, 2007

book of books - Madame Bovary

It is easy to come to this book by Gustave Flaubert with preconceived ideas about both the story and the style. Because it is a great favourite of quite a few people I know who also have a liking for romance fiction the first mistake was thinking it might be a slushy love story. The second is thinking that the debate about the rights and wrongs of the central character’s – Emma Bovary – behaviour is a clear cut one. Instead it is much more complex and you find yourself sometime hating her and then at other moments understanding the power of the dream she is chasing.

If it had been clear cut then of course the writing would not have the same depth and ability to take the reader on a spiral of emotions that end with you understanding why it has happened but not excusing the stupidity. The irony is that her beauty and not her money attract the lovers she takes but it is because of the debts she runs up trying to play a part that she eventually loses everything.

Plot summary
A child of limited ability, Charles Bovary, becomes a doctor and falls for the daughter of one of his patients and marries Emma a teenager when he meets her. The wife soon starts to outgrow the rural practice and after attending a ball where she can enjoy the spectacle of the rich landed gentry she finds her own life to be sadly lacking in excitement and leans on her husband to move to a larger town. Once there she is attracted to a lawyer’s clerk who courts her but leaves before anything serious happens. But quite quickly she is seduced by Rodolphe a rich womaniser who fancies adding her as another notch to the bedpost. But Emma really falls for him and expects him to take her away from her life of misery, by now she hates Charles, but he abandons her. After a bout of illness after this betrayal Emma meets Leon in Rouen and this time there is a physical element to the relationship. But in the meantime she is running up debts and being played by the local moneylender and things come to a head and the bailiffs arrive and then a poster is put up in town advertising all of their worldly goods for sale. Despite what it might mean for her husband and their daughter Emma takes poison and dies leaving a heartbroken Charles who dies not long after finding her hidden love letters and confronting Rodolphe. The daughter is passed from family member until she is left with an aunt who sends her to work in a cotton mill because she cannot afford to feed her.

Is it well written?
There are some really clever echoes with Charles being the one who advises his wife to ride with Rodolphe, which gives them the opportunity to be alone, and then later on being the one to reintroduce her to Leon. Another echo is of the Vicomte, the man who throws the ball near the start of her married life. He reappears briefly at the end to compound her misery. What makes the story work is that without lengthy passages outlining the social class system in France you quickly understand that the invitation the ball was something unusual for a rural doctor and the spell it casts on Emma is as powerful as that on the poor man dreaming of winning the lottery. The other thing worth mentioning is that you never see the end coming, both the demise of Emma and that of Charles, and that is as a result of the way Flaubert pulls you headlong into the last 80 pages of narrative without giving you a chance to breathe until it is all over.

Is it worth reading?
This sat on the shelf for a while and even when the first few pages had been consumed there was a nagging doubt that this book would be enjoyable but by the final 100 pages it had a momentum and a power that makes you wish it had lasted for a couple more affairs and a few more hundred pages. In parts this is a love story, a tragedy, a thriller and a mystery and it is no surprise to hear people place this at the top, or very near it, of their personal reading lists. It is not so much a question of if it is worth reading but if it is worth missing out on? To do so would be a missed opportunity.

Dreaming of a better life leads to a spiralling debt and a double life, which eventually leads Emma Bovary with no other option of taking her own.

Version read – Oxford World Classics paperback

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