Cousin Bette

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Overview

“Bette is a wronged soul; and when her passion does break, it is, as Balzac says, sublime and terrifying,” wrote V. S. Pritchett. A late masterpiece in Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine, Cousin Bette is the story of a Vosges peasant who rebels against her scornful upper-class relatives, skillfully turning their selfish obsessions against them. The novel exemplifies what Henry James described as Balzac’s “huge, all-compassing, all-desiring, all-devouring love of reality.”

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Overview

“Bette is a wronged soul; and when her passion does break, it is, as Balzac says, sublime and terrifying,” wrote V. S. Pritchett. A late masterpiece in Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine, Cousin Bette is the story of a Vosges peasant who rebels against her scornful upper-class relatives, skillfully turning their selfish obsessions against them. The novel exemplifies what Henry James described as Balzac’s “huge, all-compassing, all-desiring, all-devouring love of reality.”

Considered one of Balzac's two final masterpieces, Cousin Betty is a thriller that vividly brings to life the rift between the old world and the new.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Raine’s translations restore Balzac to his passionate and efficient outrage upon the expectations of fiction. This best of his novels is worthy to be ‘ours’—and now it is.” —Richard Howard
The Barnes & Noble Review
Not too long ago, my friend Harold told me that if he didn't have to earn a living, he would just read Balzac. This is something a literate Francophone in the middle of his life could wish for reasonably, because Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) wrote over 90 novels and a number of plays to comprise the definitive chronicle of his era -- La Comédie Humaine -- giving Harold sufficient material to engage his days. Balzac, who enjoyed popular success in his lifetime, influenced a number of significant writers, most notably Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, Friedrich Engels, and Marcel Proust. His complete works are not readily available in translation, so those of us who are not fluent in French have to content ourselves with a comparatively meager handful of Balzac's treasures in English. The literature professors would most likely suggest that the must-reads are Eugénie Grandet, Père Goriot, Lost Illusions, Cousin Bette, and Cousin Pons -- all glittering masterpieces wrought by Balzac's playful hand.

But if you have a day job and feel shy about committing to even a mere 5 volumes out of 92, for my money, the first I'd pick up would be the Modern Library's Cousin Bette (translated by Kathleen Raine, with an introduction by Francine Prose), a delicious novel of envy, lust, money, revenge, and sexual hunger that began its narrative life, preposterously enough, as a children's short story written by Balzac's baby sister, Laure.

At its simplest, Cousin Bette is a tale of the Hulots -- one unhinged aristocratic family. Without comparison, Baron Hector Hulot is the memorable sex maniac father character of 19th-century literature. Adeline Hulot, née Fischer, serves as the baron's martyred wife; Victorin is their prim lawyer son; and Hortense is the pretty young daughter in search of a husband. The hidden engine of this broken family machinery is Adeline's first cousin, the title character Lisbeth Fischer, referred to coarsely as Bette. This country cousin -- 43 years old at the beginning of the novel -- deserves top billing, because she plots the complex course of the novel through her desire to avenge herself for the numerous slights she has suffered throughout her life as the homely, ridiculed spinster.

The painful back-story is important to bring up here, for Vosges soil nourished the roots of Bette's murderous envy. Bette and Adeline, daughters of the Fischer brothers, were raised in the same peasant household, but Adeline, the elder by five years, was treated royally for her marked beauty, in contrast to Bette -- "[a] Vosges peasant woman in all senses of the word -- thin, dark, her hair black and stringy, with thick eyebrows meeting in a tuft, long, strong arms, flat feet, with several moles on her long simian face..." The younger sister is consigned to labor in the field. When the 16-year old Adeline is chosen by the Adonis-like Hector Hulot, then the ordnance officer-in-chief in Napoleon's army, to be his wife, Bette is left behind in the mud of Vosges for years, until Adeline sends for her in Paris, where it becomes clear to her family benefactors that "it would be impossible to marry this girl, with her dark eyes and black brows, who could neither read nor write..."

In Paris, Bette, armed with her "peasant shrewdness," is trained expertly to embroider the uniforms of the Imperial Army to earn her keep, thereby permitting her to live alone in a hovel and maintain the marginally dignified existence of the poor relation. At the age of 43, "The girl gave up all idea of competing with or rivaling her cousin, having experienced the effects of her superior qualities; but envy remained hidden in her secret heart, like the germ of a disease that is liable to break out and ravage a city if the fatal bale of wool in which it is hidden is ever opened." Balzac takes care to succinctly detail this family history of two girl cousins, and with a rousing start, our story blasts off.

It is July 1838; Baroness Adeline Hulot is 48 years old. Balzac, ever the lover of mature married women, lets Adeline have a significant physical advantage at an age when most writers, then and now, would have made her a wizened matron. Due to his lifelong erotomania, the 62-year-old Baron Hulot has blown through his capital and leveraged his financial prospects on a series of exquisite teenage entertainers. Much to Adeline's heartbreak, there is no cash left for Hortense's dowry. Adeline's otherwise adorable Baron Hulot has also made an enemy for life by stealing Josepha, the young and beloved mistress of the unsightly Celestin Crevel, a wealthy ex-perfumer, who is also the father-in-law to Victorin Hulot.

In the masterfully conceived first chapters, Crevel, the savant businessman and parvenu, gauges accurately the Hulot family's fragile household economy. To avenge Hulot's theft of the gorgeous Jewish singer, Josepha, Crevel proposes this bargain to Adeline Hulot: 200,000 francs for Hortense's dowry in exchange for a decade of Adeline's sexual favors. Naturally, the good wife spurns the little toad. While this scene is taking place, the maiden Hortense is ferreting out nuggets of intelligence from Bette about her young sweetheart, Wenceslas Steinbock -- an impoverished Polish count and sculptor who Bette has kept alive above her garret by eating into her modest savings. With her information at the ready, it takes the beautiful Hortense only one scene to pilfer Wenceslas from Bette's private store. Hortense then succeeds in her scheme to marry the handsome Polish count with the blessings of her parents. Bette's cache of injuries, now multiplied irredeemably by this ultimate Hulot family betrayal, provides tremendous horsepower for the novel's ensuing intrigues. With the evil siren Valerie Marneffe as her instrument of destruction, Bette's revenge unspools.

Balzac's biographer Graham Robb writes, "From 1829 on, each of his novels tells the story of debt." The author lived perennially with a team of creditors chasing him, his bills of exchange evidencing the man's profligate consumption patterns. Balzac, who remains unchallenged as France's greatest man of letters, outspent his income throughout his adult life in blazing style and died a debtor despite a number of publishing successes. That his character Bette would employ each character's lust, vanity, and prejudices to bring about their destruction points to Balzac's intimate awareness of immutable obsessions and his belief in the inevitable dominance of a person's essential nature. This novel refuses to serve up redemption, admirable choices, or personal growth, yet the highly pleasurable story is all the better for it.

His gargantuan ambitions matching his voracious appetites, a 34-year-old Balzac declared that he would characterize his epoch and nation through endless volumes of fiction. For the remainder of his life, a scant two decades, he wrote and wrote about human debts and our bottomless hunger for more. Cousin Bette is Balzac's magnificent story of debt -- of debts fatefully incurred, and of debts requiring settlement at the hands of earthy women and men. --Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee is the author of the novel Free Food for Millionaires. She has received the NYFA Fellowship for Fiction, the Peden Prize from The Missouri Review for Best Story, and the Narrative Prize for New and Emerging Writer. Her work has also been featured on NPR's Selected Shorts.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199553945
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2008
  • Series: Oxford World's Classics Series
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 965,256
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Kathleen Raine, the renowned British translator, poet, critic, and editor, was recently awarded the distinguished title of Comman-deur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.

Francine Prose’s most recent novel, Blue Angel, was a 2000 National Book Award finalist. A contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, she writes for many publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

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Read an Excerpt

Cousin Betty


By Honore de Balzac

Wildside Press

Copyright © 2003 Honore de Balzac
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781592245659

Chapter I
Toward the middle of the month of July, in the year 1838, one of those vehicles called milords that had lately made their appearance in Paris drove along the Rue de l’Université, carrying a heavily built man of middle height in the uniform of a captain of the National Guard.

Among Parisians, of whose intelligence we hear so much, there are some who think themselves infinitely better men in uniform than in their ordinary clothes, and who imagine that the taste of women is so depraved that they will be favorably impressed—so they fancy—by the sight of a busby and military trappings.

The features of this captain of the second company expressed a self-satisfaction that gave a positive radiance to his ruddy complexion and his rather chubby face. This halo, bestowed upon the brows of retired tradesmen by money made in business, marked him out as one of the elect of Paris—an ex–deputy mayor of his district at least. And, needless to say, the ribbon of the Legion of Honor adorned his chest, which was dashingly padded out in the Prussian style.

Proudly ensconced in the corner of the milord, this decorated gentleman allowed his attention to stray over the passers-by—who, in Paris, often in this way come in for pleasant smiles meant forbeautiful eyes that are not present.

The milord stopped in the part of the road between the Rue de Bellechasse and the Rue de Bourgogne, at the door of a large house that had recently been built on part of the court of an old mansion standing in its own garden. The mansion had been preserved, and remained in its original condition at the end of the court, whose size had been reduced by half.

The way in which the captain accepted the help of the driver as he got down from the milord was enough in itself to betray a man in his fifties. There are certain movements whose manifest heaviness is as indiscreet as a birth certificate.

The captain drew his yellow glove on to his right hand again, and without consulting the concierge, made his way toward the flight of steps leading to the ground floor of the mansion, with an air that meant “She is mine!”

Paris porters take things in at a glance; they never stop decorated gentlemen of heavy gait who wear blue uniforms. In other words, they recognize money when they see it.

This whole ground floor was occupied by the Baron Hulot d’Ervy, Commissary-General under the Republic, late officer-in-charge of the Army Commissariat, and now head of one of the principal departments of the War Ministry, Councilor of State, a senior officer of the Legion of Honor, and so on and so forth.

Baron Hulot had himself taken the name of d’Ervy, his birthplace, in order to distinguish himself from his brother, the celebrated General Hulot, colonel of the grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, created Count de Forzheim by the Emperor after the campaign of 1809.

The elder brother, the Count, to whose charge the younger brother had been committed, had, with paternal prudence, placed him in military administration, in which, thanks to the services of both brothers, the Baron had won, and indeed deserved, the favor of Napoleon. From the year 1807 Baron Hulot had been Commissary General of the armies in Spain.

After ringing, the bourgeois captain made desperate efforts to straighten his coat, which had wrinkled up both in front and behind—the result of a prominent corporation. Admitted on sight by a manservant in uniform, this important and imposing man followed the maid, who announced, as she opened the door of the drawing room, “Monsieur Crevel!”

On hearing this name, so admirably suited to the figure of its bearer, a tall, fair, well-preserved woman rose as if she had received an electric shock.

“Hortense, my angel, go into the garden with your cousin Bette,” she said quietly to her daughter, who was working at her embroidery a little distance away.

After making a gracious bow to the captain, Mademoiselle Hortense Hulot went out by a French window, taking with her a dried-up spinster who looked older than the Baroness, although she was five years younger.

“It is about your marriage,” Cousin Bette whispered in the ear of her young cousin Hortense, without seeming to be in the least offended by the way in which the Baroness had sent them away, treating her as of almost no consequence.

This cousin’s style of dress would, if need be, have accounted for this lack of ceremony.

The old maid was dressed in a maroon-colored merino dress, whose cut and trimmings suggested the Restoration,an embroidered collar worth about three francs, and a stitched straw hat with blue satin bows edged with straw, of the kind worn by old-clothes women in the market. At the sight of her kid slippers, whose style suggested a fourth-rate shoe shop, a stranger would have hesitated before greeting Cousin Bette as a relation of the family, for she looked just like a daily sewing woman. Nevertheless, the old maid gave a little friendly nod to Monsieur Crevel as she went out, a greeting to which that personage replied with a look of mutual understanding.


From the Trade Paperback edition.



Continues...

Excerpted from Cousin Betty by Honore de Balzac Copyright © 2003 by Honore de Balzac. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

COUSIN BETTE
by Honoré de Balzac

 

INTRODUCTION

In Balzac's La Comedie Humaine we see the beginnings of history treated as a serious novelistic subject, a subject that would dominate much of 19th-century literature and find masterful expression in Tolstoy's War and Peace. Knowledge of historical context is crucial to an understanding of Balzac's thematic concerns as an artist, as well as to a basic understanding of his characters' motives and fortunes. The Napoleonic Wars, Restoration, and 1830 Revolution, all events experienced by the young Balzac, were defining moments in the nation's history and were readily invoked by intellectuals to explain the circumstances, national or domestic, of Balzac's time.

After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, France restored the Bourbon regime under Louis XVIII and Charles X. The Restoration had managed to absorb the republican changes of the Revolution and Napoleon, but, when in 1829, King Charles X revoked the charter which guaranteed a free press among other things, the people, led by the middle class, staged a successful revolution. Charles abdicated, and, under the new King Louis-Philippe a constitutional monarchy was established which had to answer to the Chamber of Deputies, an institution equivalent to the British House of Commons. Composed mainly of wealthy middle class entrepreneurs, the Chamber of Deputies moved rapidly to divide the large family estates that dominated the nation's feudal past and to base France's economy on the principles of finance. This was the political and economic system under which Balzac labored as an artist, and one in which he saw the seeds of destruction for the glories of Napoleonic and dynastic France.

Much of this history can be deduced from the details of Cousin Bette, and we can gather Balzac's attitude about these historical changes in the novel's nostalgic and apprehensive tone. Balzac, whose father was a supplier to Napoleon's army, laments the Empire's military defeat, but, more significantly, he mourns what he felt to be the loss of the noble values of its past. He believed France had become a nation of shopkeepers upholding the morality of self-interest and survival. The heroic past is remembered in as a period of conjugal, social, and professional harmony. Baroness Adeline Hulot recalls that her husband's infidelities began with the dissolution of the empire; and her daughter Hortense is said to be the product of "true love." Throughout the novel, the narrator, along with Hulot and other personages of the old guard, lament the changing times, the loss of the great hereditary estates, and, with them, the proper patrons of art. "Every-thing bears the stamp of personal interest," in a nation where the men are judged by the shrewdness of their speech not the bravery of their deeds; they are but "walking coffins containing the Frenchmen of former France." At the novel's conclusion, Dr. Bianchon offers diagnoses not only of the ailing Baroness and Bette, but of the state itself. "Lack of religion and the encroachment of everything of finance" is to blame for all the social evils. "Noble disinterestedness, and talent, and service to the state, were thought worthy of esteem; but nowadays the law makes money the measure of everything."

While Cousin Bette is an astute, and, at times, propagandistic, analysis of French social history, the novel is also a compelling portrayal of human, ahistorical passions, particularly of desire and vengeance. Hulot is the consummate slave to Eros, responsible for all the woe his family and comrades endure. Humiliated professionally and socially, he persists like some abstract figure of desire, taking on pseudonyms (all anagrams of his real name), attaching himself to one then another teenage mistress in ever more squalid corners of the city, reduced to nothing but his desire. Hulot is certainly repulsive as a human being, but there is something magnificent about his undeviating devotion to a single passion: sexual passion untarnished and undeterred by sentiment, by social life, by anything outside itself. In Bette, Balzac has added another masterful portrait to his gallery of human souls tyrannized by singular passions. Lisbeth Fischer, whose physical and moral ugliness is the antithesis to the saintly grace and beauty of her cousin Adeline, concentrates all her talents and energies onto the secret vengeance of the Hulot family. As she succeeds with her intricate machinations, the discrepancy between her humble status (despite her kinship to the Hulot family, she is referred to, like a servant, by her nickname "Bette") and the actual power she wields becomes almost grotesque. While there is something formulaic about this character driven by revenge, Balzac spends ample time on the causes of her hatred and jealousy; and in discussing her childhood, he anticipates Freud's theories on early trauma and unresolved emotions, and the manifestation of these traumas as adult neuroses.

Despite Balzac's overt aims of discrediting the administration of King Louis-Philippe and the Chamber of Deputies in favor of a centralized monarchy and reinvigorated national church, Cousin Bette, in its series of well-drawn portraits, never fails to honor the infinite complexity of the human soul regardless of historical context. Balzac's fidelity to the truth of his own manifold experience of life, fortunately, prevents him from furnishing simple political solutions to the crises of his time, and enables him to write with the moral courage and earnestness found only in his century's finest works of literature.

 

ABOUT HONORÉ DE BALZAC

Honoré de Balzac was born in 1799 at Tours, to Bernard-Francois Balzac, a servant, and Anne-Charlotte Sallambier. Put out to nurse at the age of four and later sent to boarding school, he had little contact with home. In 1814 the family moved to Paris, where Honoré continued his boarding-school education for two years, and then studied law at the Sorbonne. Balzac became a Bachelor of Law in 1819 but decided to begin a writing career, choosing to remain in Paris with the meager financial contributions of his family. The complete failure of his first literary effort, the play Cromwell, did not deter but redirected his artistic ambitions toward fiction. During the 1820s Balzac wrote various novels, both under different pen names and in collaboration; spent time in journalism; and tried to make money in printing and publishing ventures, whose lack of success laid the foundation for debts that plagued him for the rest of his life.

In 1829 Balzac published his first novel under his own name, Le Dernier Chouan (later Les Chouans), which was to become the first of those novels to be incorporated in his magnus opus, La Comedie Humaine. With the critical acclaim of Les Chouans and his collection of six stories called Scenes de la Vie Privee in 1830, Balzac entered the fashionable world of literary Paris, responding to it by adding the honorific "de" to his family name and adopting a luxurious life-style. Over the next twenty years Balzac remained a fixture of the Parisian social world, writing plays and articles and more than ninety novels and stories. In 1842 many of these were published in seventeen volumes as La Comedie Humaine, a monumental work containing more than 2000 characters, which forms the most comprehensive and brilliant social history of post Napoleonic France. Important works were still to come following the European revolutions of 1848, but after the publication of the magnificent paired novels Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons in 1847, Balzac's health and creative talents quickly deteriorated.

In 1832, in his extensive fan-mail, Balzac received a letter from a Polish countess, whose elderly husband owned a vast estate in the Ukraine. The next year he met Countess Hanska in Switzerland, and in 1835 the couple agreed to marry after her husband's death. For seventeen years, with intermissions, they conducted a voluminous correspondence, until their marriage finally took place in March 1850. Balzac died three months later in Paris.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Some critics have claimed that Baroness Hulot's patient response to her husband's infidelities is a flat portrayal of the ideal wife, and have charged Balzac with an implicit endorsement of her passive, selfless stance. Given the circumstances of the novel, do you think her course of action, or inaction, is repugnant and totally inappropriate; and do you think that Balzac is approving or critical of her behavior?
     
  2. Though Balzac had very ambivalent feelings about Napoleon, he is partly responsible for the creation of the Napoleonic myth. Do you think Balzac presents the members of the imperial army, particularly Baron Hulst, Marshal Hulot, and Uncle Johann Fischer, as the embodiment of noble values standing honorably against the changing times, or are they faulted for inflexibility and for idealizing a past founded on aggression and tyranny?
     
  3. At the very center of the novel when Balzac philosophizes on art, he concludes that "constant labor is the law of art as well as the law of life." Cousin Bette obviously provides many negative examples of this proverbial statement, but are there any positive cases in which this applies?
     
  4. When Balzac narrates the changing artistic and romantic fortunes of Count Wenceslas Steinbock, he implies that Bette's relationship with the sculptor was important, even indispensable to his early success. How does this episode, and the professional failures Steinbock encounters after leaving Bette, problematize our interpretation of her?
     
  5. Although Balzac poignantly shows how the older generation is morally destroyed by the market economy of Post Napoleonic France, is Cousin Bette a convincing demonstration that the rule of money is inherently incompatible with the rule of morality?
     
  6. Baron Hulot's son Victorin, who is clearly meant to represent the new bureaucracy, is vital to the survival of the Hulot family. What, if anything, does Balzac value in Victorin and his generation?
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 11 of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2002

    Great Book!

    This book is one good classi that everyone should admire. Not to say Read!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2002

    Most Amusing!

    One of the rare books that I've read with a good plot that kept me guessing. To be a soap opera, it had many good life lessons. I highly recommend.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2012

    the book was great -- I would recommend it

    there was a slight problem with the e-book. Some sentences were missing from the bottom of one page to the top of the next and caused some little bit of confusion at some points in the story.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 19, 2013

    *SPOILERS* I am surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. I no

    *SPOILERS*

    I am surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. I now wish I had read it (like I was supposed to) in History 103 or whatever it was. I guess I was just too busy reading the 1300 page course book we were assigned. :P

    For the whole book, I had been rooting for Cousin Bette. Her reasons might have seemed petty for some but the Hulot deserved ever speck of her vengeance. He was a dirty old man. I was disappointed that of all those she had focused her energy for revenge on, only one truly received the results of years of hard work.

    In the end, I felt for Madame Marneffe. I quickly got over the virtuous Madame Hulot. The Hulot women and Crevel’s daughter seemed weak. Cousin Bette and Madame Marneffe were clever, though Marneffe shallow. The young Hulot was the redeemer of the family. And Hulot, the dirty old man, deserved so much worse. 

    Honore de Balzac was racist, weirdly sexist (changed from feminist to douche once or twice), but extremely observant of the human condition, particularly of Paris in the early 1800s. He also seemed to have a deep respect for the arts but little for the artists. He also seemed to sometimes respect the tenacity of peasants while as once condemning them in disdain. 

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