I decided to pick up this book after a friend of mine saw a television adaptation of what he said was regarded as the most perfect novel ever written. Intrigued, I offered to read it with him and we both quickly acquired copies.
Now that I've finished it I question the appellation. It may be a subjective standard, but to me a perfect novel should have at least one sympathetic character, and Madame Bovary has none -- least of all the title character. I found Emma Bovary to be a self-centered person with unrealistic aspirations that brought her family to its doom. Perhaps because of the fact that I have a child of my own I felt that her treatment of her daughter Berthe to be especially unforgivable, and I felt nothing for pity for a fate inflicted upon her.
Yet while I contest the view of Madame Bovary as the "perfect" novel, it is undeniably a great one, well deserving of its place in the pantheon of great literature. The flaws which made the characters unsympathetic also made them multi-dimensionally human and fueled my momentum through the novel. I also found its depiction of life in nineteenth-century France incredibly rich and real (perhaps understandably so, given the extent to which Flaubert drew from his own experiences to infuse his work with realistic details). But what clinched it for me was Flaubert's description of the elements of Emma Bovary's downfall, as the author provides what might be the first literary depiction of a person brought down by the scourge of consumerism. It gave his novel a feeling not only of being modern, but even prescient, as it's a moral tale that has become ever more relevant since its first publication. So while the novel may not be perfect, its is nonetheless fully deserving its reputation as a great book.