Friday, August 3, 2012

La Joie de Vivre (a.k.a. Zest for Life or How Jolly Life Is!) by Emile Zola

Don’t let the title fool you.
In the first six chapters of this book, no less than four characters take to their death beds, and Zola provides us with minute details of their sufferings, relapses, and further sufferings (I won’t say who survives and who dies). Zola meant the title to be ironic, which is clear early on. Pauline Quenu, who was a little girl in Zola’s novel Le Ventre de Paris, is now a teenager, recently orphaned. She moves to Bonneville, a small fishing village on the harsh Normandy coast, to live with the Chanteaus, relatives of her father. She spends an awful lot of her time nursing the sick. Otherwise, she’s hanging out with her cousin Lazare as he tries to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He dabbles in science, music, and other business ventures. This book overflows with suffering, much of it pointless. Basically, the heroine is continually abused (not physically) by the people she loves, and doesn’t make any attempt to free herself from the situation. The descriptions of life in the brutal seaside town offer some interest, but most of the novel takes place within the walls of the family home. The story has a bit of a gothic feel, reminiscent of Wuthering Heights. Unlike the other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series, this book doesn’t offer much historical perspective on life during the Second Empire. Unless you plan to read the entire series of twenty novels (which I wholeheartedly recommend), don't bother with this volume.
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