Dan's Reviews > L'Assommoir (The Dram Shop)

L'Assommoir (The Dram Shop) by Émile Zola
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Mar 21, 10

bookshelves: 2010

don't get me wrong, this book is impressive - and zola's wider genealogical project (les rougon-macquart) is downright fascinating. but l'assommoir was a BIG letdown for someone who really fell in love with germinal a year or so back.

i like zola best when he's dealing more with social structures than characters or narratives. in germinal, his hysterical side is balanced out by the sheer scope of the novel; with so many characters, there's little time for one or two of them to get lost in melodrama. but in l'assommoir, he sticks mostly to a single portrait of a laundress named gervaise, and affords himself less room to move about from concept to concept.

gervaise isn't particularly noteworthy for any reason other than her ability to endure injustices, and as the novel becomes more and more scandalous, zola sculpts her into a rather disappointing caricature of humankind at its worst. this is one of those novels that seems to sympathize with the "plight" of a female character, but ultimately lacks any real insight about what might be going on in the head of its heroine, beyond the pain and suffering. frankly, i prefer the less passive aggressive misanthropy of a book like madame bovary, where a similar character is treated with less superficial sympathy, but far greater psychological complexity.

for a while, the novel's squalor is borne out of an admirable attempt to characterize abject poverty and alcoholism. zola goes to great lengths to describe gervaise's laundry and her husband's pub crawls. but as the novel progresses, its onslaught of atrocities begin to gather momentum. by its second half, they begin to feel sadistic - and the more sadistic the details become, the sillier they seemed to me. to make matters worse, most of the novel's most tragic moments are not-so-subtly foreshadowed early on in the book, and waiting for each misfortune to arrive quickly becomes predictable and tedious.
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