Friday, February 17, 2012

Les Chouans by Honoré de Balzac

A spy thriller full of surprises
Les Chouans is one of Balzac’s earlier works and is often referred to as the book that made him famous. Following the French Revolution of 1793, some of the citizens of Brittany, out of loyalty to the former monarchy and to their Catholic faith, refused to accept the secular Republican government and rose up in an attempt to overthrow it. These royalist rebels were known as the Chouans. This novel takes place in Brittany in 1799, mostly in the town of Fougères and its environs. The handsome young leader of the rebellion meets a beautiful, mysterious young woman. Over the course of having lunch together, the two fall in love to the point of being willing to risk their lives for one another, even though neither is ever certain where the other’s loyalties lie. If you can suspend enough disbelief to get past that, then this book is a great ride. It’s got guerrilla warfare, political intrigue, espionage, and a romance worthy of Shakespeare, all set within beautiful descriptions of the Breton countryside. Balzac’s writing combines Emile Zola’s attention to descriptive detail and keen insight into human nature with Alexandre Dumas’ ability to construct an intricate plot peopled with an interesting collection of disparate characters. The book crawls a little bit in the middle, but the beginning and the end are fast-paced and suspenseful. The third act in particular is very skillfully written with a lot of twists and turns. Balzac keeps the reader guessing every step of the way as to what’s going to happen next, right up to the very end.
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