NOTE: I read this book in the original French.
I was assigned this book this semester in my French class. I was pretty excited for it, as I’ve read other works by Zola and loved them. Unfortunately, this one didn’t live up to my expectations.
This is the first in Zola’s epic series on the Rougon-Macquart family. I think there are something like twenty books in the series; they all focus on the same town and the descendants of the same mentally ill woman. Zola was really interested in heredity, and so all of the books in the series have an underlying theme of inevitable destruction; the characters’ fates have been ordained by their ancestor’s illness, and they all carry it with them in some way, letting it (consciously or not) shape their actions. This isn’t really the type of series that needs to be read linearly, though–I read Germinal, one of the later books, before this one. All of the books deal with different characters; this book simply sets up the (easily summarized) backstory. Because there are so many characters in this book, and many of them are given their own books later on in the series, it might be better to read this one last, so it’s easier to see who you’re supposed to focus on.
The book has a lot going on, so it’s hard to give a concise plot summary. Basically, the action takes place in a small town in the South of France at the beginning of the Second Empire under Napoleon III. The main conflict of the novel is that between the Royalists and the Republicans; characters fall on both sides of the divide, and are motivated primarily by their political interests and desire to enact change in the country in one direction or the other. These political interests are closely connected with social climbing and greed; thus the novel can be seen as a meditation on ambition and the desire for power. There’s a lot of political discussion, some romance, and quite a bit of intrigue and scandal–these characters, and some of the plotlines, would not be out of place in a contemporary soap opera.
One of my biggest problems with the novel is how wordy it is. Zola spends far too long simply describing things–this can be interesting, but having whole chapters devoted to the layout of the town can be exhausting. It was also frustrating having so much going on at once, and I found it difficult to keep minor characters straight and to focus on the important plotlines (because he’d abandon them for pages and then pick them back up again with little transition).
There are definitely some interesting themes presented here, though, as well as some remarkable characters, most notably Félicité Rougon, who is a ruthless, shamelessly power-hungry, and incredibly manipulative woman. She’s easily the most interesting character, as much of the action is propelled by her desires and influences on the men around her (usually without them knowing it). The scenes featuring her were definitely my favorites.
I think I’d have enjoyed this book more if I’d read it last in the series; as is, it’s too confusing and there isn’t enough emphasis on the characters to form lasting connections with them. I’d recommend it with reservations–check out Zola’s other books first, and then come back to this one.