One of the most vividly atmospheric books I've ever read. From the opening lines - where the fugitive Florent returns to Paris hidden in a vegetable cart after escaping from Devil's island - the reader is plunged into the world of Les Halles, the city's covered food markets.
Zola's descriptions of the meat, fish, fruits and vegetables on display have the symphonic richness of a prose poem, symbolically equating their decorative abundance (and fly-specked corruption) with the excesses of the French Second Empire against which Florent has rebelled.
Unfortunately, his fascination with the markets and the gossipy, upwardly mobile petit bourgeoise traders who inhabit them, does detract from a not-too compelling central story. Florent is a weak dreamer, whose attempts to live under a new identity with his butcher brother and organise a new insurrection against the government always seem doomed to failure.
He's constantly manipulated by his upwardly-mobile sister-in-law Lisa, who despises his politics and is keen to get rid of him, and her great rival La Belle Normande, a fish trader who sets her cap at Florent to gain revenge on her snobbish former schoolfriend. They're both far more compelling characters and in the end Florent's story is swallowed up in the recreation of a grubby, acquisitive world that Zola clearly finds appalling and fascinating at the same time.
The novel is an early entry in the Rougon-Macquart cycle and there's a definite sense of Zola introducing characters who will be more significant later, and experimenting with the form his "naturelle et sociale" history of the Second Empire will take.
All of this makes it less successful and rewarding than some of his works(Therese Raquin has a taut, utterly compelling plot yet is still steeped in atmosphere) but worth it for the experience of a master stylist evoking a lost world (the markets were demolished in the 1960s) and creating an Orwellian atmosphere where the authorities keep the masses enslaved by encouraging them to acquire a bit of money and social standing - and betray even family members to keep it...
It's an excellent edition, too - solid introduction, illuminating background notes, very extensive bibliography and a translation that captures Zola's earthy, worldly tone - so different to what Dickens was producing at roughly the same time but sharing all his reforming zeal and rich humanity.