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The Alkahest is set in Flanders, in Dovai in the Department of Dunord. In the world of Balzac to be Flemish means you are sensible, not overly emotional, in control of your passions. Imagine the dark paintings of Flemish families in the Louvre. Balzac does a very good job of painting this world with his detail replete descriptions. He draws us into visualize Rembrandt images of prosperous merchants, all as proper as could be. No man has a mistress, no wife a lover, no bachelor a gambling problem or a fondness for bordellos, no child is rebellious, no businessman schemes to cheat his peers.
The husband in this story is obsessed with the idea of turning ordinary low cost chemicals into diamonds. Balzac goes into great detail in describing the lab and the procedures. The man is completely taken up in this project, when not in the lab he is reading texts. He ignores his wife.
Alchemy was the start of many chemical discoveries and we see this in the plot line. The wife becomes jealous of his love for his project and sees it as a rival. She thinks if it were a flesh and blood woman she would know how to fight back. Contrary to social norms, she begins to study the same texts as her husband and soon joins him in his work.
There are of course sub plots and twists and turns. I would say this is mostly a novel for those reading through the full Comedie Humaine.