—Wendy Smith



I’d better confess up front: I have always disliked Madame Bovary. I read it in English in high school, in French in college, and both times I was repelled by what I saw as Gustave Flaubert’s (1821–80) contempt for his characters. I couldn’t warm up to a novel that so mercilessly depicted its heroine—and almost everyone around her—as shallow, ignorant, selfish and greedy. Flaubert’s famous declaration, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” must be an example of his celebrated irony, I thought; his cold, clinical narration demonstrated not a shred of empathy.

Granted, someone whose favorite author was Charles Dickens was not necessarily the best audience for his considerably less sentimental French contemporaries. But I adored Stendhal and Balzac, also read in college, whose sardonicism was tempered by affection for at least some of their characters. Flaubert, I concluded after my second try, was one of those savage artists, like Stanley Kubrick, that I just didn’t get. Over the years, however, I realized that, although a masterpiece doesn’t change, people do, and you can grow to appreciate works of art that once seemed antipathetic. Kubrick has become one of my favorite filmmakers, for example, and when Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary came my way, I thought I might find myself savoring Flaubert’s ruthless detachment as I had come to enjoy the black humor of Dr. Strangelove. Well, kind of. Davis, herself an acclaimed short-story writer as well as a distinguished translator, does a brilliant job of capturing Flaubert’s diamond-hard style. I don’t remember which earlier English version I read, but I do remember that it seemed antiquated as well as unpleasant. Davis’ English prose has precisely the qualities she notes that Flaubert was striving for in French; it is “clear and direct, economical and precise.” This translation reminds you what an aggressively modern writer Flaubert is: suspicious of all received wisdom, infuriated by any value system—Catholicism, rationalism—that willfully ignores the world as it really is. Sentences I had missed before now jumped out at me: “A man, at least, is free…but a woman is continually thwarted.” I still didn’t believe Flaubert much liked silly, sensual Emma Bovary, but I could see that he thoroughly understood the society that produced her. Did I like Madame Bovary better this time around? Not really, but I admired it much more. Flaubert’s courageous refusal to pander to our need for sad stories to be softened by reassuring morals, or at least tragic grandeur, ages very well indeed. He won’t lie, and he makes it very difficult for us to lie to ourselves. I’d still rather be reading Bleak House, but I get it.

—Wendy Smith

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-670-02207-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2010

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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