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REVIEW: Madame Bovary’s Daughter by Linda Urbach

Dear Ms. Urbach,I picked up this book with a bit of hesitancy – I’ve not read Madame Bovary, and my only knowledge of the story comes from my viewing of a BBC miniseries from 2000, starring Frances O’Connor as Emma Bovary. I ended up hating it – most of all hating Emma, who was the most selfish, shallow, self-destructive and irrational “heroine” I’d every encountered.Madame Bovary's Daughter by Linda UrbachI think I was influenced by my impression of Madame Bovary as being a novel with feminist underpinnings (I may have been confusing it with Hedda Gabler, which probably doesn’t really make sense, but then, the vagaries of my mind often don’t). Afterwards, reading up on Madame Bovary, my impression is that while the novel is certainly open to feminist interpretation, Flaubert’s intention was very different; the book was intended as a work of realism. Knowing that might’ve made the miniseries slightly less maddening (probably not, though; Emma really sucked).

Anyway, my feelings on Madame Bovary might have prejudiced me against this sequel, but I was drawn to it anyway. I’m sure I’ve said before that these days I’m drawn more to historical fiction than historical romance; I still love the latter when it’s well done, but so much of it feels familiar to me at this point. At least even mediocre historical fiction doesn’t usually read like something I’ve read twenty times before.Madame Bovary’s Daughter opens at the funeral of Charles Bovary, who dies a short year after his wife has poisoned herself (in her last supremely selfish act – I did mention I didn’t like her, yes?). Berthe Bovary is 12 years old, and facing an uncertain future. She’d like to stay with a family friend, Madame Homais, but is swiftly informed that she is instead expected to go live on the farm of her severe grandmother, the elder Madame Bovary. On the way to the farm, Berthe tries to convince herself that perhaps her grandmother, who she does not know well but whom she has never had reason to feel warmly towards, will welcome her with open arms. Upon her arrival, Berthe is disabused of this fantasy; her grandmother is as grim and severe as ever, and seems to want Berthe chiefly as an unpaid servant. Nonetheless, Berthe settles into country life, finding some beauty and peace in the hard work and country living. She also finds budding romance with the handsome (but ultimately faithless) field hand, Rene.Berthe’s fortunes appear to change when famed artist Jean-Francois Millet, of the Barbizon school (no, not that Barbizon school) comes to the area, hoping to paint scenes of rural labor. He lights on Berthe as a model and muse, and pays the 13-year-old behind her grandmother’s back to pose nude for him (for while, I was concerned that this would turn ugly, but Millet’s interest remains purely professional). Soon enough, though, Berthe’s fortunes change again (as they do a lot in the novel); she is forced to make her own way at barely 13, and ends up in a factory that makes cotton cloth. The factory and the boarding house where Berthe stays (the money taken directly out of her wages) are both fairly horrible; the former dangerous and degrading, the latter mean and depressing. But Berthe manages to rise above and even find some pleasure in working with fabric. Dresses and fashion are an interest of hers, a legacy from her mother, whose love of beautiful things was so ruinous.

Berthe manages to avoid her mother’s worst self-destructive tendencies, though at times she has a similar tendency to flights of fancy (an optimism that goes beyond unrealistic into the realm of the slightly deranged). For instance, when Berthe is given a “promotion” and sent to Paris to be a maid in the household of the factory owner (a move that seems entirely intended to put her at the mercy of the man), she imagines that she’ll become a  valued member of the family:

But as always, despite her doubts and fears her imagination and fantasies took over: Monsieur Rappelais had taken one look at her and realized she was the daughter he had always longed for. Berthe knew he had sons but had no idea if he had any daughters. Still, she was not one to let facts interfere with her daydreams. She felt certain he was merely using the guise  of needing a maid to get her to Paris. Once there he would tell her the truth: He wanted to formally adopt her.

I realize that Berthe is still supposed to be pretty young at this point (three years seemed to pass without my realizing it; she is 13 when she goes to the factory and then 16 when she goes to Paris. I thought it had been a couple of months or a year at most). Even if she’s supposed to have a natural optimism or naivete, even if we’re meant to understand that Berthe doesn’t really believe her fantasies, they begin to grate. If you take them seriously, she appears somewhere between thick-as-a-board and delusional. But the other possibility is that they are used simply to highlight the pitifulness of reality, when Berthe’s dreams come crashing down around her. I don’t mind a little emotional manipulation, particularly in the service of angst, but it needs to be a bit more subtle than this. Berthe can’t always be digging through the manure, looking for the pony.

Anyway, circumstances at the house in Paris are both better and worse than Berthe could have expected. She does suffer abuse and degradation, but it’s of a subtler kind than I expected (at least until the end of her stay). She also gets to meet the famed dressmaker Charles Worth, a friend and business associate of her employer. It’s through Worth that Berthe is able to work her way towards the success that she’s dreamed of, but it’s hard won victory.

Madame Bovary’s Daughter was a difficult book to get a handle on. I found that it defied categorization. It’s not high literature, like the novel that inspired it. It’s not a romance (if it were, it would be a very frustrating one, with a TSTL heroine and a real asshole for a hero). The book club guide at the end pointed towards it being women’s fiction, and indeed it has a lot of the markers I associate with women’s fiction, chiefly the focus on an imperfect heroine trying to achieve her goals in a world that often times seemed to be against her. At times it reminded me of one of those romance/women’s fiction hybrids from the 80s – the sort of books Barbara Taylor Bradford wrote. But I expect books like that to have a more sweeping scope; this book focuses solely on Berthe and ends when she is barely 20. It felt like the pacing of the novel was off at times, especially in the rushed-feeling ending.

Inconsistent pacing and characterization were my chief issues with the book. A lot of time is spent on Berthe’s various situations as she grows up: her grandmother’s farm, the factory, the wealthy household in Paris. Berthe doesn’t seem to learn or grow much during all of these changes. Mostly she gets knocked down, and gets up again. Her obtuseness is especially frustrating when she gets involved with Armand, a painter she meets while working as a maid.

Berthe is immediately infatuated with Armand; he seems indifferent to her. After a few flirting encounters, Armand takes off for Italy. Berthe doesn’t see him for a few years, but pines for him the whole time. I never understood the attraction; was Berthe repeating her mother’s mistakes, falling in love with love? If so, it’s never acknowledged. Berthe’s boundless and mysterious passion for Armand is treated as if it makes sense, when it really doesn’t. Especially when, as I alluded to above, he is a grade-A asshole.

Despite Berthe’s reminisces about events that occurred in Madame Bovary, and the presence in this book of a fairly major character from the first one, I felt that the connection between the two books was tenuous. What I can only imagine had some depth in what is, after all, a classic masterwork is rendered trite in this sequel. Berthe’s attitude towards Emma is inconsistent and confusing; none of her memories of her mother seem fond - far from it. But she doesn’t evince any hostility towards her in her thoughts. Overtly, her thoughts seem to render her mother a victim more than anything. Yet late in the novel she thinks to herself that she has forgiven her mother and let go of her anger towards her, which was strange because she never seemed angry in the first place. (Though she had plenty of reason to be.)

There were bits that were problematic from both a characterization POV and in terms of logic. Late in the book, Berthe wants to buy a house. She’s afraid to get a mortgage, because of her memories of her parents losing everything. She makes an agreement with the bank: she will make a substantial payment and then have a year to pay off the entire house and take possession of it. It seemed sort of like putting a house on layaway, which I’ve never heard of before, but whatever – maybe they did it differently in 19th century France. Anyway, Berthe ends up worrying throughout the year about both having the money to pay off the house (if she doesn’t pay it off, she forfeits all she’s put down) and about how Armand will react, since she hasn’t told him anything about it. Towards the deadline, she has the money, but  her concerns about Armand deepen to the point that she thinks she may just have to give up her dream (and her deposit). I was pretty entirely perplexed and annoyed by this; even if she didn’t move into the house (because of stupid Armand) wouldn’t it have made more sense to pay the house off and rent it out? Or even let it sit vacant; she can always sell it later. Anything would be better than just letting go of thousands of francs. Again, this bugged me as a logistical issue – would Berthe really be so stupid? – and because it reinforced that Berthe’s acceptance of Armand’s selfishness was all kinds of fucked-up.

Occasionally the writing in Madame Bovary’s Daughter felt self-conscious or awkward, as in this line, when Berthe is delayed in going out with Armand by work:

“On this particular night she was experiencing something few Victorian women ever had to face: the struggle between her job and her family.”

This line reads really awkward as a thought of Berthe’s, and even from an omniscent narrator (who doesn’t appear in the book otherwise, that I can recall; the prose is 3rd person from Berthe’s POV) it would be stilted and throw me out of the story.

Armand and Berthe’s relationship lurches on; he becomes more and more unlikable, and he wasn’t that likable to start with. At times, the immaturity of both characters shows; when he complains about her working too hard, and says she loves her work more than she loves him, she jabs at him by asking why he thinks she loves him at all. In the space of a few lines, they go through making verbal digs at each other, to play fighting (he spanks her…sigh) to making love. This reinforced for me that they were both too young and immature to be playing house.

Despite my problems with the book, after a slow start, it was a fairly absorbing read. Up until the end, in which Berthe’s long-awaited epiphanies occur in the space of about five minutes and all we get is a sappy epilogue, the book was probably a B-/C+. The ending dropped it down to a C for me. I would recommend it if you’re interested enough in the subject matter to put up with the flaws and a frustrating heroine.

Best regards,

Jennie

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

6 Comments

  1. Kim
    Nov 02, 2011 @ 17:18:55

    Jennie -

    I read Madame Bovary in high school and really disliked it. So I find it interesting that even a movie can’t save the plot.

    ReplyReply

  2. Janine
    Nov 02, 2011 @ 23:16:59

    I pretty well hated Madame Bovary in high school too, but I don’t recall it that well. I wonder if I would like it better now? I don’t think I would want to read this book without rereading Madame Bovary first.

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  3. Junne
    Nov 03, 2011 @ 04:53:44

    Ok, as a French-speaking woman , I have to say that Madame Bovary is a masterpiece of 19th century French literature ( but you probably know it).As for the “plot”, there’s no plot so to say, the beauty of the book is her journey and Flaubert’s writing which is oh so poetic and poignant, well at least in French. It’s always hard to appreciate a style-based book in another language. So, I highly encourage you to reread it.

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  4. Danielle
    Nov 03, 2011 @ 12:04:41

    Thank you for this review. I have been in two minds about trying this book and the awkwardness I sense makes me lean more and more against going for it.

    Flaubert’s style and his shrewd observations about human nature as well as provincial life make Madame Bovary well worth a look if one is interested in literary fiction; as Junne comments, the novel holds an important place in French culture. The dissection of Emma Bovary is merciless, though, and she is not a heroine in the sense of someone who triumphs over herself or her circumstances. Translations are always tricky when language is an essential part of a novel’s appeal, but Lydia Davis’s from last year has received a lot of positive attention as well as some debate.

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  5. Jennie
    Nov 03, 2011 @ 17:20:40

    @Janine: Janine, did you hate the writing or the characterization and plot? I think I’d be more interested in reading it if it was just the latter, since I already know what to expect in that regard. Junne and Danielle have made me more interested in reading it for the prose, though of course as they point out, a translation is never going to quite have the same impact as the original.

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  6. Janine
    Nov 04, 2011 @ 12:13:05

    @Jennie: I don’t remember exactly what I hated. I think I didn’t warm to the characters and didn’t like the ending, but frankly, at seventeen I didn’t appreciate The Great Gatsby or Faulkner or a lot of literature that I appreciate and even love now. A lot of good books are wasted on high school students IMO.

    A number of years ago I came across a reading journal that I kept in high school, for my senior year AP English class. I had some good insights at that age, but they were mixed in with utter nonsense — for example, in response to reading Sophocles, I wrote that I couldn’t fathom how Oedipus could put out in his own eyes, when I couldn’t, without flinching, approach my own with eyeliner!

    ReplyReply

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