Well. I have really been out of the blogging loop the past week or so, as I have been on vacation in beautiful California. First, I was visiting my baby nephew in San Diego and then a side trip with my youngest child to Disneyland. Believe it or not, I actually got some reading done.
So what did I read on vacation? Light, fluffy beach reads? Murder mysteries? Something by a California author, at least? Well, I did bring one book by John Steinbeck, but I never even cracked a page of it. Instead, I spent my vacation reading a book about poor French people who drink themselves to death! Yes, dear readers, my choice for a light vacation read was L'Assommoir by Emile Zola, also known as The Drinking Den. Fun stuff!
Here's the setup: Set in the mid-19th century, Gervaise Macquart is a young woman of twenty-two, living in seedy hotel in Paris. In the book's first pages, she's anxiously waiting up all night for her lover, Auguste Lantier, the father of her two young sons. He finally arrives home at the crack of dawn after drinking and carousing all night; meanwhile, she's pawning all her possessions so they can eat. She goes out to do some laundry and meanwhile Lantier skips town with practically everything she owns. (Her reaction to this news while doing laundry is pretty priceless; the book is worth reading for this chapter alone).
Gervaise is no quitter, and pulls herself up by her bootstraps and works hard as a laundress. Eventually, she marries a roofer named Coupeau, who seems like an upstanding, non-drinking guy. After a rather rocky wedding day (another great chapter!), things are going pretty well for her. She and Coupeau are both working, he's a good father figure, and she's ready to go into business on her own. Sadly, she's surrounded by jealous gossips who take advantage of her and stab her in the back at a moment's notice -- and then her old lover Lantier shows up and worms his way back into her life. She and Coupeau start on a downward spiral that is horribly depressing yet so engrossing I could not stop reading it.
I've read a lot of books with characters that I like to call fascinating train wrecks, but Gervaise has to be one of the worst -- but Zola writes her and her situation so well. The characters seem so real that sometimes I just want to jump into the book and give them a good shaking. Her life is hard but things are looking up until she makes one stupid decision after another. I wanted to slap her upside the head like Cher slaps Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck (one of my favorite movies of all time):
If you've read any Zola before, this book combines the train wreck aspects of La Bete Humaine with the nasty backbiting characters of Pot-Bouille, in a Paris apartment complex in a working-class neighborhood. It's the seventh in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and though the characters are related to others in the series, it's fine to read as a stand-alone book -- Gervaise is the mother of Nana, the eponymous main character in book #9; and also of Claude, the artist in The Masterpiece (#14); Jacques, the engine driver in La Bete Humaine; and Etienne, the mine worker in Germinal (#13). Of those, I've only read La Bete Humaine and Germinal, both of which I loved, so it was interesting to read about their childhoods and how Zola was setting up these characters for the later books.
Based on the title, I thought this book was going to be incredibly depressing and dreary, and this is somewhat true --there are some scenes of people drinking that are pretty awful and even nauseating, but they're only a small part of the book; from the title, I thought the entire 400+ pages was going to be about people sitting around a bar getting soused. Also, the ending is pretty sad, but that didn't surprise me -- I've read seven novels by Zola so far and not a single one has a happy ending! However, Zola is so good at weaving these tales I can't stop reading them.
Has anyone else read this novel? Did you find it incredibly depressing? And is it strange that Zola writes these amazing books about such wretched people? And does anyone else take classics on vacation?