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Balzac is a master in using normal social interactions to develop his stories, and each of them we feel that besides being entertained, we got a glimpse of the post-Napoleon French society.
There are very few works that can be put on the same level as this collection of stories, novels and essays by Balzac. I highly recommend anyone not familiar with this author to give it a try. For your reference, if you want to keep exploring further, the next work in the "recommended order" of reading is The Ball at Sceaux.
Balzac begins the book by describing an ancient building on the Rue Saint-Denis in Paris, which stands out from its neighbors like a relic of centuries past. This edifice, adorned with a whimsical old painting of a cat playing tennis, houses the shop of the cloth merchant Monsieur Guillaume. The antiquated Guillaume runs his business with the tried-and-true methods of an earlier era and governs his brood of two daughters and three apprentices with an almost military strictness. Guillaume plans to marry his eldest daughter Virginie to his reliable senior apprentice Joseph Lebas, thus insuring the future of the family business. Lebas, regretfully, would much prefer the hand of the younger Guillaume daughter, Augustine. The feeling is not mutual, however, since Augustine has fallen in love with a rich and successful artist, Théodore de Sommervieux. After much negotiation between old Guillaume and the various lovers, the daughters are married off. What follows is a contrast between two marriages--one for love and one for duty--and an investigation into whether love is enough to insure a happy long-term union.
I can usually count on Balzac for at least a four star book, but this piece doesn't quite measure up to the majority of his work. Balzac does his usual superb job of establishing the setting, and the reader becomes enthralled in the inner workings of the Guillaume household. Once the story turned to the philosophy of marriage, however, my interest waned. The subject matter and tone of the two halves differ to the point that the book as a whole suffers. As I was plodding through the lofty, heart wrenching romance toward the end of the novel, I found myself longing for the more humorous tone and naturalistic style exhibited in the earlier pages. Balzac caps the story off with an all too abrupt ending, which further compounds the disappointment. Beyond the halfway point, this novel ceases to be an ensemble piece and concentrates almost exclusively on one couple. The couple in focus, unfortunately, is far less intriguing than the supporting cast. The good thing about the Comédie Humaine, however, is that often the supporting characters eventually get their due treatment in another work. Those wanting to learn more about the fate of the Lebas family can find them in Cesar Birotteau and Cousin Bette.
Guillaume is the very portrait of the successful bourgeois. He has three clerks apprenticed to him, the first of whom, Joseph, is an orphan he intends to marry to his elder daughter Virginie. However, Joseph is in love with the younger daughter Augustine but Augustine is in love with a successful artist.
How will all this turn out? Much to my surprise, Guillaume behaves very decently towards both his clerk and his daughter. Augustine turns out to be both wise and naive. Madame Guillaume, frowning on her daughter's choice, behaves more conventionally than does her husband but that only serves to provide contrast to Monsieur Guillaume's unexpected progressive opinions. Love matters, but does it last?
Vincent Poirier, Fort Lauderdale
Disclaimer: I read this novella in the original French.