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If you are squeamish or prudish, do not read this novel published in 1847 in France at the height of the "libertine" philosophy/movement that one need not be restrained by the morals of society, including monogamy and the institution of marriage, but should instead seek life's pleasures with no regard to others, particularly the pleasures of multiple sexual partners (Note: this is an uneducated synopsis of Libertinism).
Honore de Balzac paints a reality in which money and sex are bartering and blackmail chips, and where honor, love, loyalty and guilt take second seat to instant gratification and ego-boosting debauchery. And regret is non-existent.
The name is somewhat misleading. Cousin Bette is the old maid who is jilted by her infatuation Wenceslas in favor of her adorable, angelic cousin Hortense Hurlot. She schemes to ruin the Hurlot family through a temptress named Madame Marneffe. Madame Marneffe is as easy as an old shoe. Daddy Hurlot and the Mayor are also sleeping with Madame Marneffe. I cannot start describing the rest of the story without going down a path littered with raunch and degradation.
The story involves cruelty, sexual blackmail, revenge, prostitution, unconscionable adultery, selfishness, the irresistibility of the female sexual allure, poisons, passion-filled murder and just about every other sin and demoralizing defect of character.
I read and listened to this novel last summer, but am just now writing a review. I wanted to read a Balzac novel. As I write this, I am convinced this novel is a playbook for today's soap operas. I give it a 4 stars for the story because there is something to be said for keeping all this straight, being one of the trailblazers of realism for so many great authors to follow, and because it's part of a larger sequence of novels and short stories, La Comedie humaine, presenting a panoramic view of life in France after Napoleon's downfall in 1815.
The narrator seems a bit too full of himself and, as such, distracts from the story instead of enhancing it.
2 of 3 people found this review helpful
What did you like best about Cousin Bette? What did you like least?
The window into Parisian society of the mid-1800s -- corrupt, licentious -- was what I found interesting and then was ultimately bored by.
How did the narrator detract from the book?
I don't want to be unkind, but he should not have agreed to narrate this. The great narrators on Audible create voices for each of the characters that capture the essence of each "person" and help you find the wit and poignancy that you might not have noticed. This narration seemed stentorian and with so many female characters, he was very unsuited for representing the women. I don't know how other narrators manage to play women so incredibly well without seeming ridiculous or unmanly, but they do! This narrator, alas, seemed to march through the text with a heavy tread. He should probably stick to nonfiction.
Did Cousin Bette inspire you to do anything?
Yes, revisit my other college favorites and make sure I don't reflexively say I love a book if I haven't read it in the past 20 years!
0 of 2 people found this review helpful