(Originally published on my livejournal account: http://intoyourlungs.livejournal.com/)
Yayy, another book for school. I was not at all excited when I saw this book on my class reading list, and I wasn't any more excited when I got a look at the cover, saw the length or read the blurb. I have to say though, this book surprised me; I ended up liking it a lot more than I initially thought I would.
So what surprised me most about this book was the characters; this being a realist novel, they are unsurprisingly the driving force of the novel, as opposed to the plot. What really struck me about these people is that, well, they all kind of SUCK: Cousin Bette is a bit of demon, trying to mess up her family because she thinks she hasn't received proper treatment (which there is an obvious argument for, but I really think she had it all right if you ask me); Valerie Marneffe who is a manipulating, conniving woman; the Baron Hulot who NEVER learns from his mistakes; Adeline Hulot, the Baron's wife, who puts up with her husband's crap literally until the day she dies; and the list goes on and on. There are literally only a handful of people in this book who aren't either a) assholes or b) pathetic and dependent on aforementioned assholes. It's completely infuriating but equally compelling to read. I think my prof likened this novel (and most of the other of Balzac's books that are a part of his Comedie Humaine books) to the 19th century soap opera. That's totally how this reads, except it's way more layered as far as characterization and writing goes.
Balzac was an extremely prolific writer (he wrote something like more than 90 books in 20 years), but all that writing obviously helped him hone his craft, because this book is really very well written. I missed a lot of the finer passages as I was kind of just plowing through this book because I have a few other books I want to read this month, but we through some of the better ones in class and I really was blown away by some of the minutiae and obvious thought that went behind a lot of the words. Of course, I'm reading an English translation of a French book, so there might be some stuff lost in translation, but that's a whole other can of worms.
While I did mostly like this book, there were some things that hampered the experience a bit, but it's more because of my reading preferences than any fault of the novel itself. The biggest of these problems is how descriptive this book is: people and areas of Paris are described in excruciating detail. This book is written in the vein of realistic fiction though, so the crazy descriptions are just a characteristic of that vein of fiction. Also, there's a lot of that minutiae in these descriptions that I was praising earlier, that adds all kinds of layers of meaning that aren't obvious at first read.
The ending is very unsatisfactory, but in a ... good way? Like I said, this is realist fiction, which was a direct response to Romanticism, so very little in this book ends on a good note, but it's got a whole underlying message of: "Well, that's LIFE. It's not fair." so it feels all right that it ended in this manner. It left me with a strange and unsettled feeling though, which I guess was the point.
Final Verdict: I was originally not all keen on reading this book; it looked so much like an over-bearing "school" book that it looked like more of a chore to read than anything. However, I'm really surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this. It's got very layered, severely flawed, but compelling characters to read about, which lends to a fairly infuriating but engrossing plot. The characters are not at all likable, but it read so much like a soap opera; everyone and everything makes you so MAD, but you HAVE to know how it's going to end (and the ending is less than satisfactory, but in a good way.) The writing is incredible and is ridiculous layered and subtle. I wouldn't wholeheartedly recommend this, because it is a classic and lends for some dense reading, such as the lengthy descriptions of people and places, but if classic fiction is your thing, I'd say give this a shot. :)