Madame Bovary: A Desperate Housewife

Time Out New York's Book Editor Matthew Love and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham.

For those who haven’t read Madame Bovary, let me tell you a little bit about this story.

This is a story about a beautiful, talented young woman named Emma Bovary. As a young girl she lived alone with her father in the country after her mother had passed away. A married doctor named Charles Bovary came to her house one day on a medical call and fell in love with Emma. Though married, the doctor found ways to return to Emma’s house again and again. When the doctor’s wife died he wasted no time in asking Emma’s father for her hand in marriage. Emma’s father was eager to comply; he just wanted “to have someone relieve him of his daughter” who was not “any use to him in his house.” So Emma’s father told the doctor to wait outside of his house while he asked Emma whether she wanted to be married; if the answer was yes, Emma’s father promised to push a shutter open. The doctor waited 49 minutes for the affirmative sign form Emma’s father.

I don’t know what happened during these 49 minutes, but one can only assume that Emma did not spend that time expressing her unmitigated bliss at the idea of marriage to this boring man. Despite her “gaze” being “drowned in boredom” when she was with him, and despite being a young girl who had no experience of life or the world outside of her small country village, she was to be married.

As you can expect, a marriage that begins under these circumstances does not turn out well. From the very beginning her admittedly tawdry but modest requests are denied. Her father refuses her wish “to be married at midnight, by torchlight,” and instead she spends her wedding alienated and fearful of the country “pranks” of her relatives. After the two day wedding the doctor takes Emma to the prison of a dull provincial town where this young woman, with so many talents to speak of (drawing, painting, piano playing, cooking, dancing) is relegated to a dreary domestic existence; staring at maps of Paris, dragging the tip of her finger across the page, while her mother-in-law complains about the amount of charcoal Emma uses in the kitchen.

II.

OK, let me be honest: most people don’t see Madame Bovary this way. Most people read this book and think Emma is a silly, capricious girl in the beginning of the novel and downright sinister by the end. But it’s this ambiguity among many others that makes Madame Bovary worthy of the praise it has received over the past 150 years. It also makes this a perfect story for a book club, especially an event like McNally Jackson’s “Ask me about…” book club.

“Ask me about…,”, presented by Time Out New York and McNally Jackson, promises to be a “free bi-monthly event [that] is part lecture, part book club, part show and part social occasion.” And that’s exactly what it was.

I wouldn’t describe the talks as lectures necessarily. Instead, they were more like short introductions to the book. Publicist Lauren Cerand expressed her relief that the story of Madam Bovary occurred before the advent of social media. She was struck by “how unobstructed [Emma Bovary’s] descent was: ”there was no Twitter, no intervention, no reality show. She just goes all the way down.”

Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize winning author of the “The Hours” declared that Madame Bovary “may be the book that matters most to me.” He emphasized that “in making her a great figure in world literature, Flaubert demonstrated for the first time and for ever after that if crappy little Emma Bovary can be a major figure in a great novel, then anybody can. Suddenly the gates of literature swing wide open.”

The book club aspect consisted of discussions that centered around questions handed out in envelopes at the beginning of the event. The questions concerned subjects like a comparison of Rudolph and Leon (two of Emma’s lovers), the nature of the narrator, and the comparison of the city with the country. We were given a set period of time, after which one person from each group would get up to the microphone and tell the crowd the group’s conclusions on the given topic. For this event, the discussions culminated in a showdown; two speakers would argue over whether Emma Bovary was a redeemable character. By chance (and tragically) I had sat down in the anti-Emma Bovary section of the room and thus was forced to argue against my own convictions; it fell upon me to discuss her greatest character flaws in 90 seconds, which I did, dutifully.

After the discussions there were the performances. Actors went through an insouciant (and at times surprisingly accurate) treatment of the novel, including the undeniably funny episode between Emma and Rudolph. Matthew Love’s portrayal of Charles Bovary as a weakling was spot on. Then of course, there was the musical performance, wherein New York based musician Andrew Vladick played two songs, one which referenced Madame Bovary. The he gave the crowd a choice for his second song: a song inspired by Freakonomics, or a song inspired by Keith Richards’s memoir. The crowd opted for the Kieth Richards memoir.

And of course, there was the social aspect, which could describe the entire event. One of the benefits of living in New York is that a show like this can draw such a large, diverse crowd whose only similarity seemed to be their condemnation of the Emma Bovary character. “Ask me about…” was fast moving, fun, and interesting, and I look forward to their next event, which will be Virginia Wolf’s “To the Lighthouse” on April 24 at McNally Jackson.

Event:
“Ask me about…”
A bi-monthly lecture/reading group/performance show at McNally Jackson

Book
Madame Bovary
by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis
Viking, 342 pp.
For more please follow me on Twitter and Tumblr.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

Mayor reveals new tech hub Digital.NYC

Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed Digital.NYC on Wednesday, a new online platform aimed at connecting all things tech in New York City. The public-private partnership…

Local

Falling debris hits two men in Times Square

Two men were taken to the hospital Wednesday morning after being hit by falling debris from 110 feet above Times Square. Nancy Greco from the…

Local

Queens Assemblyman William Scarborough accused of misusing campaign…

Queens Assemblyman William Scarborough has been indicted on state and federal charges for allegedly withdrawing campaign funds as cash for personal use. Scarborough, a Democrat…

News

U.S. Secret Service director Pierson resigns under fire

U.S. Secret Service Director Julia Pierson resigned under fire on Wednesday after a series of security lapses came to light.

Television

TV watch list, Wednesday, Oct. 1: 'Criminal Minds,'…

The "Criminal Minds" team adds some supernatural assistance, as the "Ghost Whisperer" herself, Jennifer Love Hewitt, joins the show. She's playing an FBI agent, but you never know when someone…

Music

See the most popular Pandora station in your…

Who knew Bachata music was so popular?

The Word

The Word: Twilight just won't die

You thought our "Twilight" days were behind us, didn't you? Well think again. Series creator Stephenie Meyer (who would rather you not ask about "Twilight"…

Going Out

Which NYC restaurant lost its three-star Michelin rating?

A record 73 restaurants in New York City collected coveted Michelin stars on Tuesday as a mix of trendy spots and fine-dining stalwarts underscored the…

NFL

Rex Ryan fields more questions about Geno Smith,…

The idea Geno Smith will be replaced by backup Michael Vick appears to be all smoke, as the Jets are intent to ride with their second-round draft pick.

NFL

Will Beatty playing like franchise left tackle again…

Left tackle Will Beatty, who is the elder-statesman of Giants’ line, has turned around his season and become a consistent force on Manning’s blindside.

NFL

John Conner back with Jets for second stint

He'll be back. It's "Terminator 2" for the Jets, who brought back John Conner to the team on Tuesday after placing fullback Tommy Bohanon on…

NFL

Fantasy football: Ben Tate to break out, Larry…

Fantasy football: Ben Tate to break out, Larry Donnell will stay solid

Career

Creating a support system for minority women in…

When Kathryn Finney founded digitalundivided — an organization devoted to engaging minority communities with the tech world — she didn’t know quite what to expect.…

Sex

We can learn a lot from animals about…

There’s a lot we can learn about love from the birds and the bees — and the chickens, monkeys and squirrels that we share the…

Style

Saint Laurent

Our review of the Saint Laurent Spring '15 show at Paris Fashion Week.

Style

Céline: Paris Fashion Week Spring 2015

Our review of the Celine Spring '15 show during Paris Fashion Week.