A while ago I read 'Fire in the Blood' by Irene Nemirovsky, then more picked up 'Madame Bovary' by Gustave Flaubert, and thought "this sounds familiar". Not that I am accusing Flaubert of copying a work written about 90 years after his, or Nemirovsky of copying Flaubert. I just noticed that 'Madame Bovary' is subtitled 'Patterns of Provincial Life', and that's what these two books provide- patterns. It's hard to describe the patterns exactly- there's the obvious (watch out there may be spoilers) pattern of infidelity in young French provincial wives, but that sounds a bit broad. There are the large country weddings, the hope of happiness that turns to discontent- or merely marriage as a chance to get away from home.
While these patterns repeat themselves between books, and within books in the case of 'Fire in the Blood', I reacted very differently to the two. 'Fire in the Blood' seems all about patterns. The title refers to youthful passion which supposedly makes everyone act crazily and is contrasted to the contentment and passivity of the aged narrator. As a bit of an aside- what I really liked about this book is that the apparent contrast and the detachment of the narrator is brought into question at the end, and you are left questioning his true feelings. There is also the pattern within families- the children repeat the sins of the parents. It's an interesting dynamic that's presented- the children believe their parents are above reproach and vice versa, but in reality they all make the same mistakes.
While 'Fire in the Blood' sees infidelity as one of the inevitable mistakes of youth, in 'Madame Bovary' it is perhaps a tragic side effect of being female. Or maybe an individual foible. Despite the fame of 'Madame Bovary' I didn't really know much about it, and had the impression that the main character was very unsympathetic. So I was surprised at how much sympathy I had for her, particularly to begin with. It really made me think how limited a woman's life was at that time, particularly in a small country town. Emma Bovary seemed fairly intelligent, but with no outlet for her energy she became extremely bored and dissatisfied, looking to wild schemes and affairs for love and happiness that continued to elude her. At the beginning I was sympathetic to her, she had very little choice in her marriage, in where she lived, and very few available occupations. But her dream of grand living and grand romance appears from the beginning to be flawed. When she becomes discontent I was reminded of the words of Merlin in Prince Valiant: 'Only a turtle on a sunny rock knows contentment' (ie no human is ever content). In this instance the search for contentment is indeed futile, and becomes more and more selfish seeming as it continues. I don't think Prince Valiant is alone in talking about the difficulties inherent in pursuing happiness, take the words of Kid Cudi for instance:
I'm on the pursuit of happiness and I know
Everything that's shining always gonna be golden.
I'll be fine once I get it,
I'll be good.