Emma Bovary, the ill-fated protagonist of Gustave Flaubert's eponymous novel, struggled to live within the confines of provincial life. She grew up on a convent and thought marriage would be her entry into an existence more nuanced than the farm life she knew. Her husband was a respectable doctor and loved her, but she found him boring and filled her idle time reading romance novels that gave her the scintillating, sensual escape she was looking for.

 Marriage didn't extinguish Emma's taste for extravagance. Before long, she sought the kind of thrill she found in the erotic pages she burned through. She took two lovers, Léon and Rodolphe, both of whom ultimately rejected her. She racked up a bill during her exploits and became destitute, eventually committing suicide lest her private affairs be exposed, and her young daughter and husband humiliated.

 It's a foreboding tale my traditionalist anti-novella father would have loved for my sister and I to read so he could wave his finger in our faces and say, "See! Look what happens!" But that is not my Madame Bovary story. Nor is a salacious love affair for the purposes of this story. I never read the damn book. I looked all of this Madame Bovary stuff up on the internet.


 A couple of days ago a friend and I were talking about money and how the way in which we interact with it is shaped by how our parents treated it. Like his parents, my friend felt comfortable and safer being frugal. His partner had a more tortured experience with money growing up. Having done without for so long, she found greater peace in being freer with money as an adult and letting her kids have more so that they didn't feel the pang of scarcity as much as she did.

 I could see the inheritance of behavior going either way. My immigrant parents were very tight with money and very deliberate in shaping our attitudes about it. We had explicit conversations about it almost every day. My father imparted regular lessons on money: Don't be afraid of it. Save it. Think about it. Compound it. Never be shy about it. These adages have served me.

 My mother left a deep mark also through her swift everyday calculations at the grocery store. She moved steadfastly through the aisles and knew the price of everything. Most of our food was unpackaged because why would you pay for food somebody tampered with and put in a box? Her math was always within cents of the official tally at the register. To this day I still think of her efficiency as the surprise number pops up when I check out telling me both what I owe and that I am a failure for not knowing already.

 My sister and I always had our basic needs met. In fact, there were a few outstanding material features of our childhood beyond necessity that I now think of as tremendous boons. For example, we had a hand-me-down Apple IIe computer from my aunt and uncle. Although they were villains for most of our childhood, I consider the secondhand computer a gift from the gods. It rewired my brain and affixed on us permanent possibility glasses. My dad eventually bought us a new computer because he could see his girls were interested. In that way he was very generous.

 My parents were also hobbyists. My father created a fabulous garden for us and tinkered with advanced irrigation drippers and hoses to maximize his bounty. He emphasized quality and spent more for it to nurture his craft in the proper way. As I got older, he encouraged me to invest in my hobbies, first with my free time and then with whatever pocket money I had as an adult.

 My mother was a savant when it came to music and films. She somehow established a vendor relationship with a foreign films broker in Texas and spent $11.99 a VHS tape to build a collection of obscure Hindi films. We grew up watching these movies, absorbing the culture, popular and divergent, and picking up on the intricacies of Indian languages in their purer forms.

 These are all spending decisions my parents made. We had little say and I grew up believing that was right. It was their money. In fact, I still believe that. Why should children have a say in money matters? Why should parents capitulate to what their children want?

 Talking to my friend made me wonder all of these things because there are a few outstanding memories I do have where money made my parents seem ugly. As ugly as Madame Bovary was beautiful.


 I first encountered Madame Bovary in 1999. My sister had to read it for school so we did what we always did. My mom drove us to the public library in her Toyota Previa minivan and – big surprise – the one copy they had for the entire city was checked out. This meant we had to buy the book, which meant my father had to drive us into town, which meant getting on the highway, which was something my mother didn't do. So on the following Saturday we drove to the big shopping mall one town over that had two bookstores. Neither had Madame Bovary.

 My dad grunted the whole time we searched, too shy to ask the sweater-vested clerks for help. Weekends were his only time off from the business. Saturdays he worked until about noon because he had to deliver to warehouses in Fontana. On Sundays my dad would garden in the morning and we'd have a farm style lunch. Then he'd pop in a VHS tape of some epic movie, like Lawrence of Arabia or Ben Hur and we'd both fall asleep about an hour in.

 It was glorious and really, my Sunday routine hasn't changed much. So I can understand a hardworking man's dismay at his only restorative time being squandered in a shopping mall.

 Later that afternoon after returning from our unsuccessful trip to the Galleria at Tyler, my sister called the short list of bookstores in the Yellow Pages and asked if they had Madame Bovary in stock. I sat on her bed and watched her, likely poking her or dogearing the pages in the phone book. Sometimes I wonder if I was comforting to have around, like an undeterred pet, or if I was just annoying.

 The next day my dad drove us to Downtowne Books by the courthouse, an even farther drive with only metered parking. The store was whimsical with its creaking floorboards and shelves that might have been wood repurposed from some great ship – or so I imagined.

Jan van der Straet, Noua reperta, 1590

 We all wandered for a while. I opened and smelled as many books as I could, a pastime I enjoyed until I moved to Las Vegas and everything I reached for at the library smelled like Marlboros.

 On the drive home my father began lecturing us about how, when he was a student, he would leave no stone unturned to borrow rather than buy books. He would always go to the library first or ask friends. It didn't matter to him that we had tried all of that, which he knew because my mother kept quietly telling him from the passenger seat.

 It was our fault, my sister's in this case, that we had to go on a lengthy pilgrimage to find this $27 book. I remember my sister sobbing quietly in the backseat, her tears honoring a plight far beyond her inability to obtain a book. It was the feeling of being caged in judgment and guilt that somebody had to raise us and shell out for us, something we both felt at various stages in our lives.

 I said nothing, but I knew one thing for sure – I hated that bitch Madame Bovary. I chose never to read the book because of unwelcome memory it was attached to – my father unknowingly reducing his relationship with his daughter to a few dollars.

 Memories serve no two people the same way. I doubt my father remembers this brief moment in time. My sister barely does and based on our conversations it meant little to her. Much like Madame Bovary, she was focused on escaping the drudgeries of our provincial town with no bookstores, not through love affairs, but by doing well in school.

 I however think of Madame Bovary often. In this case after talking to my friend about money, daughters, and habits. Which is apparently what Gustave Flaubert was going for.

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