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on August 23, 2003
In his preface to this book, Balzac makes an interesting observation about 19th century France that seems to be a preoccupation of our century as well. Balzac states that young men who grow up without a significant male role model are destined to have a rough go in life. According to him, most of the tribulations that occur in The Black Sheep stem from the very fact that there was no father to steer the Bridau family.
The main focus of the book is upon two brothers, Philippe and Joseph Bridau, whose father has died, leaving their close to destitute mother to raise them. Phillipe ends up becoming an artist with a pretty dependable income. Joseph serves in Napoleon's army for a while until his final defeat and then, too proud to serve under the new government, becomes an unemployed gambler who steals money from his family only to throw it away at the tables.
You would think that their mother would favor Joseph with more love because he looks out for their family and provides a steady income and is completely devoted to her. She puts all of her love upon Phillipe, the ne'er do well who only sees humanity as a tool to further his own ends. She does this because she sees Joseph's profession as a painter as a waste of time in her practical mind. Real men become soldiers like Phillipe. So what if he's a vice filled man? She idealizes him so much that she can't see his faults.
Balzac is a genius. There really isn't a central character is this work. Everytime you think Balzac has settled upon a particular cast of characters, he exits them and enters a new set to interact with the plot. Constant reinvention. While Joseph is in jail for plotting against the government, Phillipe and his mother have to go rescue his rich uncle, who is being hoodwinked out of his fortune (a fortune, by the way, that the Bridau family is due to inherit) by a manipulating mistress and her lover.
This was a great novel. Not perfect, but great. Balzac is to me the most modern of the 19th century novelists writing in the Victorian age. He is not sentimental like Dickens. He was great at watching families squirming to get at money. Squirming to get money not for survival in most cases, but to attain status. All of the characters in this novel were drawn really well. Very strong. I would recommend any of the Penguin Editions of Balzac if you like this book.
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As historian and novelist Balzac paints a picture of post Napoleonic France through the eyes of an impoverished family, and the trials of their lives. After a series of emotional hits, Balzac takes the reader through a contest of wits, set amidst a web of intrigue, and a very contorted family tree. The end result is an excellent story with a sophisticated plot which at times gives too accurate a portrait of the detachment of man. The Black Sheep also contains a short social commentary on New York, which though written 150 years ago, is still exceptionaly accurate.
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on April 26, 2009
This might be Balzac's greatest novel, it is certainly his most perfect. Elsewhere Balzac can be garrulous, here not a word is wasted. The plot has a classic, beautiful symmetry. We are driven forward at a rapid pace by the author's logic. (Forgive the cliches.) Balzac greatly admired the Machiavellian element in Stendahl, but in this respect he far surpassed Stendahl. One can be "too good for this world". Nice people finish last. To fight evil you must be almost as bad as the people who threaten you. We need scoundrels to protect us from external enemies, but then who will protect us from our protectors. Anyone interested in the Bush Administration's war on terror must read this novel.
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on December 19, 2011
You're probably under the impression that crime doesn't pay. Allow Balzac to disabuse you of that notion. In "The Black Sheep," murder, ruthless ambition, exploitation of vulnerable geezers, and neglect of one's parents pay off quite handsomely. True, most of the villains eventually receive their comeuppance, but a major theme of the novel seems to be that as long as a person is wealthy, good-looking, and/or socially well-connected, the world is content to remain oblivious to his or her moral failings. The world respects power, money, and good looks, rather inexplicably associating these qualities with virtue. Conversely, the world is likely to attribute evil motives to those with the misfortune of being poor, powerless, and not particularly attractive. Balzac's most devastating conclusion is that even one's family members are swayed by outward appearances rather than inner worth: a mother will love her handsome, successful son more than her ugly, struggling son even if the former owes his success to dubious practices and ignores said mother while the latter is an honest person and a paragon of filial devotion.

The plot of this novel is complicated because there are multiple villains and each is busily hatching intricate schemes for self-advancement. Furthermore, each villain is attempting to undermine the other villains, so the web o' turpitude grows ever more dense as the story progresses.

I would classify this novel as historical fiction because so much of the plot requires an understanding of the political situation of the period. Most of the story is set in post-Napoleonic France. The political tensions between ultra-loyalists and liberals influence the fate of the characters, and the difficulties military men experience in adapting to civilian life is a recurring motif. For example, one character, Philipe, fights for Napoleon and is proclaimed a hero. When the Bourbon Dynasty is restored, he refuses to rejoin the army, preferring to spend his days drinking in bars with fellow veterans, reliving the Battle of Waterloo. (These Bonaparte loyalists apparently formed a sub-section of society at the time, a down-and-out but still formidable mob of soldiers rejecting civilian rule but no longer answering to military authority.) Philipe's decision to align himself with this group is pivotal to the plot of "The Black Sheep."

Half of the novel is set in Paris, the other half in the small town of Issoudun. Balzac contrasts Parisian manners and customs with provincial life and attitudes. This novel is part of Balzac's Human Comedy, specifically his "Scenes from Provincial Life."

All in all, an interesting book and a very quick read. I recommend it.
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on February 20, 2015
To read and enjoy Balzac takes a certain mood and temperament. Balzac is at his most entertaining when he is at his most cynical, and while "The Black Sheep" is cynical to the point that all the major characters are utterly detestable it isn't cynical to the point where the tragedy becomes a farce. That makes "The Black Sheep" difficult reading, even drudgery at some points.

The story concerns itself with two Bridau brothers. There's Joseph, a nice and well-meaning and filial man who's despised by his mother and by society for choosing to become an artist. Then there's his older brother Philippe, a rascal and a thug who nevertheless is beloved by his mother. The two are a study in contrasts, with Joseph the eternal saint and Philippe the incorrigible sinner.

The story is most amusing towards the final third of the novel (if the reader can survive that long). Then Philippe, who's just barely escaped prison for his role in a treasonous plot, must match wits against his doppelganger Max who's holding hostage the Bridau family fortune. Using all the tricks Philippe has learned in the army and in the social gutters of Paris Philippe wrests control of the family fortune from that scoundrel Max in a duel, and once he does Philippe proves himself the greatest villain of them all.

The malicious and selfish Philippe can be likable at times, but Joseph the angel is almost without any redeeming qualities. He's self-righteous and pig-headed, and his saintliness can be exhausting.
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on March 4, 2015
The thing I love about this book is the slow, inexorable build to a denouement. Honoré de Balzac is the master of character portrayals. The sibling rivalry between Phillipe, the embittered soldier, and his brother Joseph, the humble artist, is a fascinating contrast between two opposites. You can feel a violent conclusion brewing between Phillipe and his rival Max simmering with each turn of the page. De Balzac perfectly captures nineteenth century greed and ambition in the many devious ways his characters seek to further their status.

This is one of my all time favorite books, but as other reviewers have noted it flies under the radar of many readers. I even forgot I’d read it until I stumbled across a mention of the author. Do not miss out on this masterpiece in storytelling.
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on September 25, 2013
While I won't go into detail as to why I enjoyed The Black Sheep--there are plenty of four and five-star reviews that seem to say what I think, and I would just be echoing--I would like to explain why I gave this book two stars. But first a warning: SPOILERS AHEAD - Do not read on if you don't want to know yet how it all ends.

So where does The Black Sheep fail for me? The chapter of the book titled "Conclusion." We start with a group of characters and as the story progresses Balzac weaves them though the plot and subplots and picks up more intriguing characters along the way. Please read a higher rated review for details and a discussion on how well the author does it. Following the climax, Balzac concludes, concludes again, and then suddenly, another apparent hastily added-on conclusion materializes--three conclusions total with each successor suffering.

For the first, the three main characters: Agathe, Joseph, and Philippe are back in Paris, and as events unfolded, I was pleasantly surprised to find Philippe never changed despite being the hero in the climax. By pleasantly, I mean having been drawn into the story and fooled by the author, or more specifically Philippe, just as the other characters in the story would have. In fact, he's worse, revealing malice not just towards family like in the first part of the book, but a new target--friends like Giroudeau as he works his way up the ranks of society.

At this point, Balzac conveys to the reader through these characters that virtue is punished while vice is rewarded. Though not a satisfying conclusion perhaps, the story would maintain a spirit of realism if it had ended there and if indeed that was the author's intent. Yet Balzac moves on, tying-up loose ends (concluding), but unfortunately moving away from realism at the same time.

In the next conclusion, Balzac resolves the main conflict--the one between Agathe and Joseph and answering the question on the back of the book cover for those readers that couldn't figure out what that main conflict was. Though a parent would likely never confess partiality between siblings, much less on a romantic deathbed, it is story after all and the reader must suspend disbelief. However, by doing so, Balzac is still able to maintain the vice-virtue theme--even after Agathe's confession, Joseph is still a starving, virtuous artist and Philippe is still a successful demon and climbing.

Still the story doesn't end and as if to satisfy our infantile urge for justice, Balzac progresses to the actual "Conclusion." And I do mean infantile, like some immature relative of Balzac's snuck this chapter onto the manuscript just before submission or worse, the editor thought to include it to make a more marketable piece of fiction. In other words, Balzac's "Conclusion" just doesn't seem like Balzac. Compare his highly intricate, well-mapped-out-though-not-appearing-contrived plot to the story's final events. Faster than you can say deus ex machina, Philippe dies the villain's, to quote, "horrible" death, at the indirect hands of Giroudeau no doubt; Joseph meets and marries a rich woman. Given the richness of storytelling in the first two parts of the story, this reader was unpleasantly surprised.

So why two stars and not say, three or four? Assuming you agree with my assessment, you might say surely these two events covered on the last four pages do not encompass three-fifths of the book. But this story was written by Balzac. Much like the family dynamics between Agathe and Joseph, we are more critical towards the more excellent child.
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on August 15, 2011
The Black Sheep is a little gem. This translation is well done - it captures the nuances and humor of Balzac. While Lost Illusions is still my favorite of all the Human Comedy books I've read to date, this is the one I would most likely recommend, particularly for students. It is much more accessible and interesting for a younger reader than Cousin Bette or Pere Goirot. Students would find it worth studying not only for the character and story development but also for the historical backdrops such as Champ d'Asile, the Bourbon Restoration and the issue of the returning soldier unable or ill equipped to be a productive member of society. There is also enough swashbuckling intrigue to keep one's interest.
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on July 9, 2013
Two brothers of an impoverished family fight for their inheritance in France. The mother of the boys has combined her estate with her aunt's and it looks as though a young peasant who was taken in by the wealthy patriarch will inherit the wealth. The brothers attempt to win her affection thinking they will gain the inheritance. Balzac has a way with words that makes you feel as though you are in the room with these people as they plot. It is a fascinating look at human passions and corruption. I enjoyed the heavy descriptive style. The book was completely engrossing.
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on December 28, 2009
I am fairly new to reading Balzac, and was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I became engrossed in the story. Balzac is a wonderful writer. His characters really come to life, and I became very attached to them, and didn't want the story to end. He touches on the best and worst qualities in people, and while I found I could really relate to his depiction of how "the majority" of people act, his heroes and heroines in the story are people you really grow to like and admire very deeply. And, the story takes some twists which were very unexpected. I loved this book!! What more can I say?
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