The Zen Leaf just raved about it, and after reading The Belly of Paris and Therese Raquin last year, I was eager to read more Zola.
The setup: Etienne Lantier arrives in a small mining village, homeless, starving, and looking for work. He's a trained mechanic but is happy to take a job as a miner, despite the horrible working conditions. Through his eyes, we get to see the life of these people, who are scraping a living out of the bowels of the earth. The work is back breaking and dangerous, there's hardly enough food to go around, and not much else to do except drink, gossip, and procreate. When the mining company decides to change the payment structure, resulting in less pay for more work, Etienne leads his comrades in a devastating strike during a long, bitter winter.
If this sounds bleak and depressing, it is, but at the same time it's absolutely riveting. Imagine The Grapes of Wrath, only set in 1880s France -- and underground, where the work in not only exhausting, but you could die at any time from a cave-in, a gas leak, or an explosion. Plus the eventual death of black lung. (Not to downplay the plight of the California migrant workers, but picking vegetables isn't quite the same. Though I guess they might get carpal tunnel or skin cancer. Excuse the digression).
Anyhow. Zola is just a master at setting these scenes and drawing the reader in -- a large chunk of the book is just Etienne's first day in the mines, so through his eyes the reader learns exactly what life is like for these people. Zola actually spent six months researching this book, spending time with coal miners and going down into the mines himself. He's also brilliant at writing crowd scenes. I tend to zone out and skim over extended action scenes in books, but not here -- there are some scenes of mob violence that are horrifying, yet I couldn't stop reading.
Zola also tells the story bourgeois managers and their families. The book is blatantly pro-worker, yet he's able to interject some sympathy for some of the managers who are really doing the best they can. Of course, some of the wives and daughters are unbelievably naive and sheltered about the whole situation, and Zola's satire would be hilarious if it probably weren't true -- they come off rather like Marie Antoinette wondering why they just don't eat some cake since there's no bread.
This was probably a poor choice to read in sunny Florida but I'm so glad I read it and can't wait to read more Zola. I have both Nana and The Drinking Den (L'Assommoir) on my TBR shelf and I'm also dying to read The Ladies' Paradise. I don't know if Germinal counts towards the Paris in July readalong, since none of it actually takes place in Paris, so I guess I'll just have to read another Zola! Any suggestions?