Friday, October 19, 2007

Weekly Book Watch: Madame Bovary

This week I'm reading Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert. (Obviously I'm reading a translation. The only French I know includes such essential terms as crepe suzette, Jacques Cousteau and French fries.)

I'm not quite at the halfway point. Emma Bovary hasn't started any of her shenanigans just yet. She's just had a baby, though (not due to shenanigans, but rather, with her husband, the longsuffering and rather clueless Charles). For those of you who know me, I'm sure you can guess that I expect to find it difficult to sympathize with any of Emma's struggles. Well, not with her struggles, exactly (the boredom and frustration of a bad marriage and a husband who doesn't know you from Adam) ... with the solutions to her struggles that I already know are coming. For the past decade or more, I've had a lot of trouble relating to main characters who decide that infidelity is a solution to marital issues. Can't fault me for that, I suppose, but I find I sometimes dig in my heels about such characters being portrayed sympathetically. Any book or movie that is trying to coax us into thinking, "Well, the poor thing had no choice -- look how unhappy he/she was!" or "Can you blame him? Look at what a bitch his wife was!" really irks me.

I suppose I just don't go in for situational ethics in any form, not even in my literature and cinema.

Don't get me wrong: I've written characters with plenty of sins, some of which are meant to be sympathetic. But, I think I draw the line when a book or movie portrays evil as good and good as evil. So, I can identify with a character who is sinning like crazy ... as long as there is a struggle with those sins. Heck, as long as the character is still calling them sins.

But once the character gives up and starts to justify his or her sinful actions as inevitable or as mere "mistakes," then I'm outta there, especially when those sinful actions involve betrayal, lying and adultery.

With Emma Bovary, I have yet to see what her own feelings about her upcoming actions will be. And that will largely determine my overall reaction to this classic.


Update on The Memory Keeper's Daughter: I felt this book had a lot of potential, and individual scenes often lived up to that potential. But the way Edwards handled the broad scope of the novel (hopping years ahead every few chapters, skipping huge chunks of time as if we wouldn't notice or be curious about them) didn't work well for me. And, without giving away the ending, let's just say I was disappointed in it. It felt contrived and a little too ... tidy. The tone of most of the novel was melancholy and sad; the change in tone at the end jarred me into thinking this wasn't even the same story.

All in all: Good plot idea, lovely storytelling in general, but the execution felt choppy and insincere in spots. Sometimes -- at crucial moments -- people did things I didn't expect or see coming. And not because Edwards is good at plot twists, but because they suddenly did things I hadn't seen in their personalities before that point. Too many times I thought, "Hey, he [or she] would never do something like that!"

I'll give it three stars out of five: * * *

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