So. Many readers are familiar with Flaubert's most famous novel, Madame Bovary. I read it several years ago and just loved it. However, I don't know a single person who's read any of his other novels. I found Sentimental Education during the Borders clearance a few years ago, but never got around to reading it. Compared to Madame Bovary, which has more than 125,000 ratings on Goodreads, there are less than 10,000 for Sentimental Education. Was this a hidden gem, or just not nearly as good?
Well, 460 pages later, I had my answer: meh, not nearly as good. Inspired by events from Flaubert's own life, Sentimental Education is set in 1840s Paris and suburbs, and is the story of Frederic Moreau, a young law student who falls madly in love with a married woman he sees on a ferryboat.
Madame Arnoux is about 30, married to a boorish, philandering man with a tendency towards shady business practices. Frederic strikes up a conversation with Monsieur Arnoux, then slowly cultivates a friendship, simply so he can get closer to his wife. Along the way, Frederic gets caught up in the upheaval of French politics, and the 1848 revolution as he climbs up the social ladder and has multiple love affairs while never giving up on Madame Arnoux.
Overall, I found the story moved a lot more slowly than Madam Bovary. It actually seemed like there were two stories going on -- the story of Frederic and his obsession with Madame Arnoux, and then the story of Frederic and his friends and how they reacted to the political changes, and ultimately, the revolution. They almost seemed like two different books to me (possibly why it's 460 pages, compared to 329 pages for Madam Bovary which seemed like a more focused novel). Everyone one of the characters was unpleasant, with the possible exception of Madame Arnoux, who I found to be really undeveloped. She's Frederic's ideal woman, so her personality is essentially flawless. She's really a minor character in most of the story.
I think I would have gotten more out of this book if I understood the history of 19th century France better. My knowledge of French history after the 1789 revolution is shaky at best -- I know a bit about the Napoleonic wars from War and Peace, and I vaguely remembered that there was more than one Napoleon, but that's about it. There's a lot of politics and cultural references in this book that are not really explained within the context of the novel -- I suppose that Flaubert assumed that readers would know what he was talking about.
So, overall, this book was a disappointment, compared to most of the French novels I've read in the few years. A few months ago I read Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant, another story of a young man climbing his way up the social ladder in Paris (set during the French colonial period a few years later). The main character was also pretty awful, but I found that book much more engaging and interesting. Unfortunately, I was in a bit of a blogging slump at the time, so I never got around to reviewing it.
At any rate, I've finally completed my TBR Pile Challenge and knocked another book off my Classics Club List, and I have another book to donate to the Friends of the Library sale.