This is my third reading of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, the first was decades ago, the second just before I began The Reading Life five years ago. It is as high a canon status work as exists.
I think I first became aware of the cultural importance of Madame Bovary around 1960 through reading of it in The Life Time Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman. I still have, in a newer edition, Fadiman's book (which I endorse strongly to those seeking to be literary autodidacts, especially isolated young readers) so I read his remarks on the novel. Admist the obligatory praise, he describes it as "cold and depressing". Is there anyone in the novel we can admire at all? The answer seems to be no. Mrs Bovary is a vain, totally self-centered fool, a terrible wife and worse mother. Dr. Bovary is pretty much a dolt. The secondary characters are either out to have sex with Emma or trick her into signing promissory notes for merchandise she can use to seem "high society". Emma is ruined through credit purchases for fancy clothes and such designed to make her appear high society. The supposed theme of my blog is a focus on books about characters that lead reading centered lives. It was reading romance novels that made Emma bored with the simple life she lead as the wife of a country doctor. These books helped to ruin her life, her husband's and that of her daughter.
So is this Pantheon status work "cold and depressing"? Ask if the murals of Anghor Wat depicting horrible battles are depressing, if Picasso's Guernica cold. Maybe it is cold on Mount Parnassus but the climb is exhilarating and maybe if one wants to counter Fadiman, to be able to contemplate such works, in which I include Madame Bovary while knowing we are of the species about which Flaubert writes is an exhilarating experience.
I hope to one day reread this novel in the very highly regarded translation by Lydia Davis. I actually like his A Sentimental Education more and hope to reread it this year.
You can find online for free a work packaged as Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert. These stories are wonderful and show a "softer" side to Flaubert.