While I’ve loved almost every Zola I’ve read in the past, I was not sold on this book. At least three-quarters of it is backstory, and it felt very clumsily put together. I appreciate the Rougon-Macquart history laid out in all that backstory, which is why I kept reading, but there was a lot of info-dump here, and that got really tedious. Some of it might have been the translation – this is the first translation I’ve read by Brian Nelson – but some of it was just the structure of the book. I appreciate what Zola was trying to do in setting up the family history for many books to come, but the story lacked the intricate interweaving delicacy that I’ve been used to in other Zola.
On a more positive note, some of the climax scenes were very moving, there were some really good lines (in translation, at least), and I loved the way the book ended. Some of the non-backstory plot was difficult for me to follow because military/political history tends to go over my head, but when Zola came back to focus on the characters, I was intrigued. I can’t say I enjoyed reading about them, as they were for the most part pretty horrible people, but they were intriguing. Of all the Zola I’ve read, this has been by far the bleakest, even bleaker than Germinal or Thérèse Racquin. I can’t say I have any desire to revisit it, but I’m glad I’ve now read the first of the Rougon-Macquart books, and have a grounding in the family history.
Favorite (translated) line of the book: “It often happens that guns go off of their own accord when they are in the hands of cowards.“