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I was inspired to return to Balzac after seeing a recently made movie based on this book. The classical story structure is superb: the opening grabs you in more ways than one -- you feel like travelling to the Spanish island, you are drawn to the characters and to their history.
In the post-revolution Paris, a wealthy young duchess has a friendly, but detached relationship with her husband. She spends her time socializing and, perhaps, trying to leave her mark. When a famous war hero re-enters the society, he attracts attention, but it is the duchess who manages to brings him out of his solitary shell. He goes to places just to see her. She enjoys the role of a big seductress, but has no intention of engaging in an affair. As the general's friend explains to him - there is nothing in it for her, but much to lose (if the husband gets angry) and so there is no hope of her changing her mind. The general realizes he has been used and plans revenge......
As usual, Balzac is great at bringing to life historic Paris and is a wonderful story-teller. He is very intimate with the reader. But mid-way through, this story falters and gets repetitive. I found the duchess's long monotones, and the dialogues with her lover deadly dull. Maybe something was lost in translation.
The pace picks up again towards the end of the story. But the general's transformation from a devoted lover to a coldhearted man is not convincing. It happens too abruptly after one, or maybe two, warnings from a friend.
Furthermore, one never really feels any sypmpathy for these two star-crossed lovers. Despite their grand rhetoric, they lack passion and chemistry. In the end, one wonders if either of them ever truly loved, or even desired the other.