Nana by Émile Zola
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Nana has one of the worst beginnings of any novel I've read recently, but I ended up liking it very much.
The story starts at a theater where a new production of The Blond Venus is having its opening night. Nana has the lead. She's an actress who has received a great deal of publicity, but has not been seen be the general public. Zola uses this situation to build suspense while presenting all of the book's minor characters. It's the all I have problems with. The opening chapter bounces around from one audience member to another so much it is difficult to keep the characters straight.
Nana can't sing and looks awkward on stage, but she's extremely beautiful. Since she appears nude in the show, her beauty is enough to carry her to a tremendous success. That's believable enough. We certainly have our share of modern actresses who become famous for their beauty rather than their talent.
But the success of the play isn't enough to carry the story for me. The audience moves on to a couple of society parties where they talk about Nana and gossip about each other. Again the point of view is still bouncing around so much I couldn't latch onto a single character enough to care what happens to any of them.
The story starts to take hold when Zola gets into Nana's head and to a theme of competition that runs throughout the novel. Nana competes with women in French society, with other actresses, and even with a streetwalker named Satin, whom she knows from her own time on the streets. But while Nana is competing for men, stage roles, and money to provide her with the most opulent surroundings, she is also the prize for the competing men in the book.
I was thoroughly caught up in the novel as it drew to an end, so when I finished it I went back and reread the beginning. As I suspected, the opening chapters were as enthralling as the latter ones once the characters were familiar to me.
This is the only book I've read by Emile Zola. I plan to try others.
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