I was warned that this, the first of Zola's huge 20 volume Rougon-Macquart cycle, wasn't one of the best, and that was by someone who read the whole cycle in French. I found it a slog - it took me two months to read, on and off, not helped by the dubious 110 year old translation, and the horrible typesetting in this edition.
Zola's ambition was to use the history of an extended family to illustrate the history of France from 1852 to 1870, the Second Empire under Louis-Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. He had particular ideas of hereditary traits, such as irascibility and drunkenness that afflict some of his most prominent characters, but that theme is mostly secondary to the broad narrative of French social life, inspired by Balzac's Comedie Humaine.
This novel deals with the coup d'etat in 1852 that begins the Second Empire - Louis Napoleon, the President of the Second Republic since the revolution of 1848, took absolute power, much as his uncle had done nearly fifty years before. This was relatively recent history for Zola's readers, twenty years after the event, although the writer himself was a mere 12 years old at the time. But for modern English readers, the events are a little confusing, and the narrative a bit hard to follow.
Zola sets the novel in a provincial town, divided between Republicans and Bonapartists, essentially conservatives. It opens with a Republican force marching by the town, joined by two young patriotic inhabitants, Silvere and Miette. Their relationship is a sentimental tragedy that forms the central episode of the book. Much of the rest is concerned with the manoeuverings of the Rougon family, predominantly Bonapartists, to attain influence despite their personal cowardice and the uncertain outcome of the coup.
Zola's intent is twofold in the book - to introduce the characters of his cycle, and to satirise the conservatives at the time of the coup. He takes an anti-Second Empire stance throughout his novels - as a political radical his opposition to despotism is fundamental. The trouble is that his ability isn't yet competent to fulfil his ambition - this novel feels rushed and uneven, there are too many authorial digressions, and the characters are shallow and unbelievable. There are elements which show Zola's budding talent, as evident in the previously published Therese Raquin, such as the action scenes involving Silvere, and the comical counter-revolution in the town. But as a whole the book doesn't work, and should be avoided, except by completists, of which I am currently one.