I’ve discovered another problem with my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. The first problem was including Fifty Shades of Grey–no explanation needed. The second was including Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert, which requires a little more explanation. The introduction states that “this list celebrates female writers who wrote coming-of-age classics as well as modern page-turners.” There is no doubt that Madame Bovary is an influential classic that is worth reading, but the problem is that Gustave Flaubert is not a female writer. I am genuinely curious if there was some breakdown of communication between the editor and the people choosing the books for this list. It’s hard to imagine that they didn’t realize Flaubert was a man. And if they did it on purpose, why did they include Flaubert as the only man on the list? I guess I’ll never know.
The short blurb next to this book says it’s about “a woman escaping her dull existence through multiple sexual affairs.” However, I would argue that in many ways this book is more about Charles Bovary and how his wife ruins him. In fact, the novel begins and ends with Charles, starting with him in school, and ending with him after his wife dies. It is certainly true that the majority of the book follows Emma Bovary, and is sometimes sympathetic to her thoughts and feelings, but it was not what I expected.
Emma Bovary is a young farmer’s daughter when she meets Charles Bovary, the local doctor, who comes to help her father. She is beautiful and yearns for luxury, love, and excitement, inspired by the many popular novels she reads. When she marries Charles, she fancies herself in love with him, but she is almost immediately disappointed. Charles loves Emma as much as he can but he cannot change the fact that he is not the smart, dashing figure of Emma’s dreams. His obtuseness continually keeps him in the dark as to Emma’s real feelings.
Even with Flaubert’s many poetic descriptions filling up the book, a lot happens in this novel. Emma falls in love with a young law student in Yonville, Leon. This first love remains unspoken and innocent. She gives birth to a little girl, whom she mostly ignores. She is encouraged to overspend and buy on credit by a Monsieur Lheureux. Eventually she obtains a Power of Attorney for her husband, so she can control and waste all of his finances as well. This is the primary cause of her ultimate downfall. When Rodolphe Boulanger, a local wealthy man, decides Emma would be easy to seduce, she falls easily into his arms. Later, when she runs into Leon again, she does not hesitate to begin an affair.
I can appreciate that there are many good things about this book. The characters are portrayed in a believable and sympathetic manner. There were also some very memorable scenes. One that really stuck with me was when the town pharmacist, Monsieur Homais, talked Charles Bovary into doing a newfangled procedure to cure his servant’s club foot, almost killing him. I also felt bad for Emma Bovary when she went to the priest for help and he was oblivious to her distress. Flaubert is very good at showing the personality of his characters, and it’s very hard not to have strong opinions about them.
However, I often had a hard time with Emma Bovary. Even though the description said that Emma Bovary had affairs to escape her dull life, I don’t think Emma would have been happy in any situation. No matter how opulent and luxurious her life, or how dashing her husband was, I think she would have tired of both. I wondered if she suffered from depression because reading popular books is not exactly an explanation of her behavior.
In many ways, this book was something of a struggle. I know zero French, so the French names and the dated French words often made it a more challenging read for me. I was using my Kindle dictionary a lot, and more often than not the word wasn’t even in my dictionary. In addition, I knew I was reading the slow demise of Emma Bovary. She just kept doing things that made me shake my head until she got herself into such a deep hole, she couldn’t face it anymore. She did so much damage to herself and those around her. It wasn’t always fun to read about.
“Life is such a hideous business that the only way to tolerate it is to avoid it…by living in Art.”
“[A] few details slipped away, but the regret stayed.”
“The future was a corridor entirely dark, with a door fast-shut at the end.”
“But a woman is continually impeded, inert and pliant at the same time.”
“She knew now the pettiness of passions that art exaggerated.”
“From where did it come then–this deficiency of life, this instantaneous decay of everything she leaned upon?”
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