Rating: 4/5 stars
Published in: June 1, 1982
I admit that I have a soft spot for classics, but I really loved this one. Set in 19th century France, the story is about Emma Bovary, the wife of a country doctor, who in order to escape the boredom and repression of the society she lives in seeks out adulterous affairs and is eventually resorted to living beyond her means as she habitually spends all her money on clothes and finery in order to live out her fantasies of grandeur and aristocracy.
Strictly speaking Emma is not the most sympathetic protagonist I've come across, but she is fascinating in her own pitiable way. Despite her status in society, she chooses to abandon living within the realistic confines of her own home and family and tries to pursue a life of passion and luxury - at any cost. She is quite superficial, easily gullible and not the most analytic of people, and towards the end of the novel becomes almost hilariously delusional; yet she is after all a product of her own time. The tragedy of Emma Bovary serves to represent the repression that most women felt during an age when all that was expected of them was to stay at home and be a good wife and mother. Emma just makes the mistake of living for her dreams and abandoning reality - a dangerous path for any human being to take, yet the desperation which drove her to it is what does make us empathise with her in the end.
As darkly tragic as this book is overall, there are also some very funny passages to balance out the darker themes - there is some fantastic comic relief that comes from the interactions between an atheist pharmacist Homais and the priest Bournisien. The roles that the supporting characters play throughout the book are very subtle yet effective; you have to read very carefully to realise who the villains really are. It's also very beautifully written - despite having read an English translation from French I could still appreciate the prose. In fact it is the subtlety of both the storytelling and the writing that really makes this book stand out.