Nana is the story of an actress who rises up from the gutters of Paris and takes the town by storm, collecting men and their money as she ascends. She is an avaricious creature, not only demanding money from her protectors but also prostituting herself whenever she cannot extort enough money from the seriously ridiculous rich men with whom she surrounds herself. But she doesn't start out quite so greedy. At the start of the story, she is just coming into her own and she is naive in the ways of manipulation. Through her clever maid's offices and the advice of certain hangers-on, she learns to exploit not only her sexuality but the strange magnetism she exudes over men. She is an Eve of the worst sort, shallow and selfish, unconcerned with the destruction of others.
Because this is a novel in the naturalist tradition, it uses very detailed realism and suggests that heredity and social origins determine a person's personality. This tips the reader off to the fact that Nana is not a heroine to strive to emulate. Rather she is a product of the lower classes and must needs be a lesser person as a result, most likely one who will come to a likely end no matter how high she manages to rise as a courtesan. As annoying as this prefiguring based on literary convention made reading, the novel was tiresome for more than just that. Zola takes fully half the novel to develop his character of Nana, drawing her as both stupid (she is a woman, after all) and cunning (ditto). He spends many pages throughout the novel in overly detailed descriptions of rooms, people, clothing, plays, etc. Despite his florid descriptions of the physical settings, Zola manages to make the male characters who flock to Nana like moths to a flame almost entirely interchangeable and indistinct. And so very few of the characters besides Nana achieve any sort of clarity in the mind of the reader. It's hard to read a novel where there is an unpleasant main character and few, if any, distractions from them.
Wasteful, bored, and dissolute characters abound in this ultimately pessimistic, doom-laden offering. It is a classic of French literature, and I suppose that I can be content with myself that another hole in the education has been plugged, but it was a dismal, dreary, and dull reading experience that I can't recommend. Others have offered accolades though so check out differing opinions on the novel before you dismiss it. But if you do choose to ignore my warnings and read it, don't blame me (unless you are an insomniac looking for a sleep aid). Not surprisingly, this will be my only experience with Zola.
I read Nana for the Classics Circuit's tour of Zola although I struggled so much that I missed my official tour date and am only squeaking this review in under the wire in order to be considered a participant at all.