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1. Son Excellence Eugène Rougon by Émile Zola, 620 pages
2. The Kellys and the O'Kellys by Anthony Trollope, 680 pages
3. Joseph Balsamo by Alexandre Dumas, 2048 pages
4. Empire of grass by Tad Williams, 668 pages
5. The three clerks by Anthony Trollope, 996 pages
6. Waverley by Walter Scott, 731 pages
This one was surprisingly easy to read, although the topic was not very engaging: Eugène Rougon has reached the pinnacle of French politics as a minister of Napoléon III, after helping him win power, and enforces his authoritarian persecution of republicans. None of the characters are very likable, and I am still puzzled by Rougon's opponent, an Italian adventuress with some very disturbing habits. How did she manipulate men into doing her bidding? As a look at French society and history in this time it is very interesting.
It is the first in a series of books about the time of Marie Antoinette who arrives in France at the beginning of the book. It ends with the death of Louis XV, and in between we meet an enormous number of real people, like Rousseau, La Dubarry and her clique, the duc de Richelieu, and of course Balsamo alias Cagliostro, and the fictional Taverneys. For three volumes, nothing much happens, just people scheming and playing intrigues by means of barbed conversations, and I was tempted to abandon it. Then, in the last, things pick up. Balsamo's plans fall apart with the death of his wife, Andrée Taverney becomes a victim of her father's ambition and becomes pregnant, and her adoring swain steals the child and places it with a farmer's family near Villers-Cotterets (which is Dumas' birthplace, by the way), thus setting the scene for more adventures in the next books.
This was written over two years and published as a newspaper serial, and it shows. People had more time and fewer other distractions in those days.
The story is a little uneven, three young men start their careers in the Civil Service at the same time and eventually get married to three sisters. In his later works he creates much more convincing female characters, these here are more wish fulfilment than real people.
So, while it has been a slow read, it has also been a rewarding one and not nearly as stuffy in style as I expected.