The literature seminar that I loved last fall culminated with a translation thesis on Gustave Flaubert’s marvelous novel, Madame Bovary. Madame Bovary is one of those novels that gets put on the best-of-the-best lists; it’s been called unapproachable, the perfect novel. It’s amazing to read it–the characters (especially Emma Bovary) and their problems have carried remarkably well to present day, and the novel itself is a masterpiece of writing style. Nothing is wasted; it reads more like a poem in terms of its beauty and efficiency than a 300-page book.
So this is the mindset that I brought when I saw that Linda Urbach had picked up the thread of the story at the end of the novel, following the death of Emma and her husband, Charles, to tell the story of their forgotten daughter, Berthe. Sadly, even though I managed to talk myself out of expecting a masterpiece, I was still disappointed in the watered-down story and ugly interpretation Urbach takes of the selfish, tragic heroine of the original.
There’s a bit too much sex in Madame Bovary’s Daughter to describe it as a cross between Dickens and an American Girl story, but I’m going to go ahead and draw that comparison anyway. You can make the call later as to whether I was wrong. Berthe is orphaned at thirteen and sent to live with her grandmother, a cold, austere woman who makes Berthe take over all the household chores. Berthe, a spunky girl who dreams of being a fashion designer, chafes under both the manual labor and rough, homespun cloth she’s forced to wear. When Grand-mere catches Berthe fooling around with the stable boy in the barn, the shock is too great for the old woman to bear, and she dies of a heart attack, leaving Berthe penniless once again. She decides to move to the city, and ends up working in a cotton mill and living in a boarding house under the watch of a cruel woman who feeds the children the same disgusting slop of a soup every day.
Berthe’s dreams aren’t forgotten, however. She still cherishes the thought of designing the gowns her mother longed for, and hopes in some way to earn the love and attention her mother never showed her in life. She’s praised for her beauty, forthrightness, and eye for fashion, and soon makes her way to (say it with me) Paris. After some minor and some more serious obstacles, Berthe does become a respected fashion designer, partnering with one of the greats and earning piles of money, but the question remains of whether she will find the true treasure that her mother lacked–someone to love who loves her back.
And I wince a bit just typing all this out. The Cinderella story in place here is so overt that one of the parts is named “Rags.” (Mercifully, we are spared “Riches.”) Where Flaubert beautifully balanced description, plot, and insight into the inner workings of Emma’s mind and emotions, Urbach tries to cram everything into one passage, resulting in achingly obvious taglines to scenes in which we are told explicitly that Berthe doesn’t like work on the farm, or that she wants to make beautiful gowns. Her sore muscles in the first case and the drool she all but leaves on the windows of fancy stores in the second is plenty of information, and those extra sentences feel like the author second-guessing either her own ability to tell a story or the reader’s intelligence.
Finally, I took issue with Urbach’s portrayal of Emma Bovary, Berthe’s mother. In the author interview in the back of the book, Urbach says her first impression of Emma was like mine–that her story was tragic, and that she was a relatable character in her desire to escape the boring life she led. It was only when Urbach became a mother, she said, that Emma’s neglect of her daughter became a demonizing trait. So perhaps, as a childless woman in my twenties, I’ll change my mind someday as well. In the meantime, though, Emma comes across as too mean. I remember her ignoring Berthe in the book, but I don’t remember the little jabs and barbs. I had understood Emma to be so preoccupied with trying to capture glimpses of luxury that she forgot her child, not that she resented her daughter so much. Emma was selfish, no question, but she wanted the same things Berthe does–to be surrounded by beauty, to choose a life for herself, to find love that is passionate and remarkable, instead of placid and convenient. That doesn’t sound like a monster to me, and if Berthe is fortunate enough to have the strength/courage/persistence/spunk that her mother lacked, I would have hoped that she would also have the sympathy to understand Emma.
It might have been a different case if I had been able to come to the book with an open mind, instead of having Flaubert’s masterpiece echoing in the back of my head. Then again, without being familiar with the original, I don’t know if I even would have picked up Madame Bovary’s Daughter.
What’s your take on reinterpretations/continuations of classic books?