Although not the most thrilling of the Rougon - Macquart series, this book sets the scene for what is to follow. It weaves a rich tapestry of characters and places which recur again and again. It provides the reader with an understanding of the motivations of the characters in the successive books and also of the genealogical basis of the succeeding characters. We see the mental anomalies of the three founding memebers of the "family" which reappear down the generations in different forms and with slight variations.
Set as a tragic love story against the backdrop of a Republican coup d'etat we see the idealistic and romantic hero of the novel being gradually subdued by the oppurtunistic and cynical members of the family. The book traces the genesis of the Rougons and the Macquarts from the same woman in the town of Plassans and then follows each family branch as they struggle for influence among the bourgeoisie of this town. We see the Rougons as they, after a lifetime of seeming failure, back the right horse and start their ascendancy through the ranks of society. The Macquarts, however, seem destined for eternity to lives of toil and burden, as they the illegitimates descended from a drunkard, never manage to shake off their inherited malaises'.
This book forms the cornerstone of Zola's philosophy regarding geneology, and while discredited nowadays, makes for a very interesting read. The book does not shake the earth in the same manner as some of its successors but it provides the reader with an invaluable insight into his mind and the scientific theories of the era. Although some of the allusions are somewhat exuberant and the finesses that grace the successive novels not as prevalent here, this book is a worthwhile addition as it provides the backdrop against which a truly amazing series is set.