Cousin Bette: A Review

My foray into the 19th century realist novels continues with Balzac. Set in mid 19th century Paris, I am drawn into Balzac’s slow unveiling of the French high society. This is my first Balzac and in the first few pages alone, I am introduced to his style of direct (to the point of crude) depiction of the French aristocracy. (How different from the style of his contemporaries who rely on saying much by not saying anything at all, relying only hints and implications.) Women – let me qualify that – beautiful women are treated not just as possessions but as a commodity to be used as a bargaining ace, to be discarded when convenient, to be bought for societal gains. (Only the denizens of the 13th arrondissement of Paris can equal this.) Plain, old and forgotten Lisbeth knew her place in society. Cunning, she used these societal expectations to setup the Hulots’ fall. I enjoyed Balzac’s direct, bold, comical and exaggerated characterizations – the Baron as the “(self)lovesick fool”, the leering (and posing) Crevel (I spent the entire novel picturing him as Gerard Depardieu) and the ambitious Madame Marneffe who at some point juggled 4 lovers and a husband. And though a bit tedious, I did like that Balzac spent the first 150 pages setting up the characters’ back stories.