Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Just once, I’d like to read a story about a woman who has an affair that doesn’t ruin her life. First Anna Karenina, now Emma Bovary…it’s almost as if these male authors are trying to send a message to their lady readers, hm?

That’s my big gripe, really – Flaubert is preachy and slut-shaming as hell, and I ended up feeling bad for his protagonist. Aside from that, this is actually a very nice book. There’s not much action, the pace moves slowly, and I would not blame you for disliking every single character in it, but it was still very enjoyable. My liking of this book hinged entirely on whether or not I liked Emma, and surprisingly I did. Actually, maybe liked is too strong a word – I guess it’s more correct to say that I sympathized with her. Emma has an adventurous spirit and a romantic temperament, but she got stuck married to lameass milquetoast Charles Bovary instead, and although her life isn’t bad, it’s boring: “Charles’s conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, and everyone’s ideas walked along it, in their ordinary clothes, without inspiring emotion, or laughter, or reverie.” Emma is completely wrong for him in every way – she’s selfish, a dreamer, a romantic, and also kind of a shopping addict:

“Accustomed to the calm aspects of things, she turned, instead, toward the more tumultuous. She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins. She needed to derive from things a sort of personal gain; and she rejected as useless everything that did not contribute to the immediate gratification of her heart, – being by temperament more sentimental than artistic, in search of emotions and not landscapes.”

Add that to a love of romance novels, and Emma becomes the prime target for a ruinous affair. Two, actually, but the much more interesting one is with a nobleman named Rodolphe, and it goes about as well as can be expected (seriously though, can anyone be named Rodolphe and not be an utter douchebag?). Emma’s addictive personality applies itself to him, and the affair doesn’t go the way she hoped.

Did I mention what an ass Rodolphe is? I hate this guy. Here he is thinking over all his various affairs and reading the old letters from past lovers: “Indeed, these women, flocking into his thoughts all at the same time, impeded and diminished one another, as though leveled by the sameness of his love. And picking up fistfuls of the disordered letters, he amused himself for a few minutes letting them fall in cascades from his right hand to his left. At last, bored, sleepy, Rodolphe carried the tin back to the cupboard, saying to himself,
‘What a load of nonsense!’…
For his pleasures, like schoolchildren in a schoolyard, had so trampled his heart that nothing green grew there, and whatever passed through it, more heedless than the children, did not even leave behind its name, as they did, carved on the wall.”

The characters all desperately want to believe that they’re living in a romance novel, but that isn’t what this book is. There’s nothing particularly romantic about it, and by the end, when everything’s been ruined and the characters are still living their lives the same way as before, all we’re left with is sadness, and a feeling of helplessness. You get the sense that no matter what you as the reader may have wanted, there was no other ending for these characters. They could live the same story over and over again, and nothing would change because they would never learn from their mistakes.

Verdict: four out of five stars

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