Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Sentimental Education

I'm a sucker for classic romances. However, when I give a modern romance novel a chance, I get bored to tears within the first few chapters for one of a few reasons.

A typical modern romance usually features a neurotic, spoiled heroine with an incurable shoe addiction that is supposed to be endearing to readers but instead, annoys me to the core. Not all women are brainless creatures who suddenly become helpless at the sight of the latest shiny cut leather on high heels!!! Alternatively, there might be a Fabio-esque character who is raring and ready to sweep a fragile, helpless woman off her feet only to ride into the sunset on a white horse, no less.

I'd like to first state that I'm not a man-hating, bra-burning feminist. I enjoy a trashy novel once in a (great, great) while. I have to be in a very specific brainless mindset to actually be in the mood to enjoy one of these moderm romance novels. It isn't so much the misogynistic, patriarchal portrayal of women that disgusts me (although that doesn't really help their case). It is the assumption that female readers (who are these books' target market) are so mindless that they could enjoy such two-dimensional drivel on a regular basis, that appalls me!

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy romance stories as much as the girl next door, but just because a story features a romance doesn't excuse authors from good writing; y'know, stuff like character development, creation of suspense/action, eliciting an emotional response from the reader, an interesting yet realistic plot, etc, etc. So I often end up going to second-hand bookstores (of which, there are at least two in my neighbourhood) and picking up classic fiction. I recently finished Gustave Flaubert's masterpiece, A Sentimental Education.

Though not widely considered a "romance", everything about it is romantic. Centered in this book, is the main character's, Frederic Moreau's, growing affection for a friend's wife, Madame Marie Arnoux. The development of this romance uses the background of the 1848 French Revolution, where we also witness the political education of Frederic and his contemporaries. The constant tension between Frederic and Marie is mirrored in the upheaval of political events as a background. Flaubert not only took care to describe to us the intricate folds of Marie's chartreuse dress or her curled auburn locks, but also the smell of fire in the Parisian streets after a riot and the beauty of his countryside hometown of Nogent.

I think my favorite heroine (if you can call it that) in the book is the city of Paris. Despite the relative darkness with which Flaubert depicted the general mood and the city, there is a certain strength and beauty about it all. It is ironic that although the book's title means the education of feelings, in the end, Frederic achieves neither education nor feelings (or sentiments), leaving us regretful that he and his contemporaries did not achieve their full potential.

An imperfect character, Frederic leaves a lot to be desired, what with his womanizing ways and spoiled brat attitude of entitlement. However, I suppose I identify with him a little bit. Till the end, Frederic was always be a dreamer, full of longings and desires. There is something familiar about the way he and his pals would hang out over drinks and tidbits, talking about the people they knew and politics. It reminds me a bit like grad school and my friends, knocking back a few together at the end of another hard week. (Spoiler alert! If you're going to read this book, stop reading this blog entry!)

The book ends with Frederic and his oldest friend sitting around, reminiscing of days gone by, loves lost and promises unfulfilled. The ending is a bit on the negative side, with the main characters either dead or having accomplished little to nothing. Nevertheless, it serves as another reminder to me of life's fleeting quality, and that we all should seize the day and live it the fullest.


glamah16 said...

I couldnt agree with your fianl obeservation more.

jesse said...

What a great book review! I love Flaubert's eye for detail too. Have you read Madam Bovary?

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