For this time, I chose to read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. This is another one that as a voracious reader, I probably should have read previously, but never have. I’m glad I finally did however though as I have to say, I adored it. The “hype” about it is definitely deserved. This isn’t always true of books hyped in the last decade (The Davinci Code springs to mind).
Madame Bovary was actually listed on quite a few authors top ten lists. Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Bebe Moore Campbell (which I might have to read her as my last middle name and my last name are Campbell Moore), Philip Caputo, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gaitskill, Denise Gess, Michael Griffith, Kathryn Harrison, John Irving, David Lodge, Thomas Mallon, Valerie Martin, Erin McGraw, Claire Messud, Lorrie Moore, Reynolds Price, Alexander McCall Smith, Lee Smith, James Salter, Scott Spencer, Barry Unsworth, Anthony Walton and Meg Wolitzer all listed it on their top ten lists.
Madame Bovary is a novel about a narcisstic woman, centuries before narcissm was recognized as a mental illness. The story begins by following Monsieur Bovary as he studies to become a physician. Then his mother (who is overbearing and cloying imo) arranges a marriage for him to an older woman who has money. Charles Bovary finds marriage to her quite hard. He has a patient whom he fixes a broken bone for, who has a daughter. Enter Emma into the story. Charles finds solace by going to the farm and having a small innocent flirtation with Emma. Old, miserable first wife dies. Charles moons about until Emma’s father basically pushes him into proposing marriage. Emma says yes.
Emma almost immediately regrets it. Numerous times throughout the story, Flaubert writes in feelings Emma has for Charles. They’re always tinged with disgust.
Emma has always been looking for sweeping feelings, and feels that nothing else will do for her. She first was swept away by religious feeling in the convent her father had her at. Then she was swept away by the joy of living in the country with her father and being the “lady” of the house. Then she is swept away by Charles’ wedding proposal. Then she becomes swept away by a ball held by nobility and a dance with a Viscount (this is where the disgust she has for Charles really starts showing). Then she has a nervous breakdown and Charles moves her to a new location. She is swept away by passion for a clerk there. Then he leaves. Enter guy #2, who is quite the womanizer smooth talker. Guy #2 goes away, enter back in clerk.
Emma is never satisfied with what she has. She always believes she needs better. She borrows money from one of the storekeepers who constantly is pushing it at her, as well as playing on her need to have the best. It eventually becomes a game of borrowing to pay and refinancing notes. This is what ultimately gets her into trouble.
It was weird. I both recognized Emma and loathed her. I found her both familiar and foreign. At times I wanted to throw the book, yelling at her “Omg, get over yourself and look at your husband who ACTUALLY LOVES you, idiot”. At other times, I found myself nodding and seeing why she felt a certain way.
I think one of the things that makes this one of the top ten novels I’ve read with the most authors listing it, is it’s universality. It’s written over 250 years ago, yet the characters remain fresh. We all have known Emmas. We’ve all known Charles. We’ve all known some of the more minor characters who pop up and propel the narrative around Emma, such as the blowhard pharmacist. I definitely would reread this novel (after a few years to let the narrative chain of events fade), as I think it’s one that could be rediscovered again and again. It did remind me a little of Anna Karenina, but much easier to read. Flaubert doesn’t digress into tens of pages on some side character or a description of fields and farming. Flaubert is a much tighter author, he paints a picture of the characters and their surroundings, the events and the consequences of the events with vivid brush strokes, but stops short of overlayering.
I highly encourage you to read this book if you never have. While reading it, make sure to focus on the characters. In today’s entitlement age (the whole idea that all of us deserve the very best and so we get into credit debt beyond belief), we all know Emmas or are Emmas.