The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola

35681450Other English title: The Fat and the Thin

The Belly of Paris is the story of Florent Quenu, a wrongly accused man who escapes imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Returning to his native Paris, Florent finds a city he barely recognizes, with its working classes displaced to make way for broad boulevards and bourgeois flats. Living with his brother’s family in the newly rebuilt Les Halles market, Florent is soon caught up in a dangerous maelstrom of food and politics. Amid intrigue among the market’s sellers—the fishmonger, the charcutiere, the fruit girl, and the cheese vendor—and the glorious culinary bounty of their labors, we see the dramatic difference between “fat and thin” (the rich and the poor) and how the widening gulf between them strains a city to the breaking point. (from Goodreads)

This is the Zola I enjoy the most! He really delighted himself describing the stores and stands at the market, creating such vivid images in my head! And, of course, the setting allowed to a great amount of characters, with all the ill intended gossiping that one can imagine.

For once, the story is centered slightly out of the Rougon-Macquart family, in a character related by marriage. Florent is Lise (née Macquart)’s brother-in-law. Still, Lise is far from being a secondary character. Her character and story are as well explained as Florent, and her agency is very well developed.

I can’t put into words what it was like reading this book. Like I said, the scenery is so well described to us, that it’s hard not to see in your mind all these things: the vivid colors of the vegetables, the perfume of the flowers, the arrangement of all the meats, I could almost smell the cheese and hear the voices of hundreds of buyers and sellers.  I kept marking and marking so many passages. I’d love to share them with you, but they’re in Spanish :/

Another thing I loved was the mention of characters from previous books. This is not something that happens very often. Sometimes some other characters may appear, in a very secondary role, or maybe alluded without being named. But in a couple of times Lise mentions “her cousin Saccard” (the main character from The Kill and Money), and I was excited because it meant an acknowledgment that at least they knew of each other (the Rougons are not big fans of the Macquarts). Anyway, this was my nerd rambling…

Funny thing, at any point I felt sorry for Florent. Sure, I didn’t like his wrong imprisonment and all that. But once back in Paris… He was way too idealistic for the harshness of Zola’s novels, so I guess I just knew he didn’t have much of a chance.

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