Emile Zola wanted to write to escape the grinding poverty he and his family endured during the 19th Century in France. This novel was his first attempt at achieving fame and fortune.
The story opens in an entertainment venue that the operator calls his “bordello.” Nana is the star in a play that attempts to show the foibles of various gods and goddesses. Nana plays Venus in a very risqué costume that delights the male attendees. Her voice, however, is less than stellar but is ruled adequate given the beauty of her body.
In the next chapter we are given detailed descriptions of a dinner that Nana hosted to show that she had come up to the level of the lower aristocracy in France. The dinner turned out to be somewhat of a fiasco since more people showed up than were invited.
To show how the real aristocracy viewed the goings on in the theater, the next chapter shows the effete ins and outs of various members of the nobility. Nana is not viewed as persona grata.
Nana wants no more of the stifling atmosphere of Paris so she adjourns to a country house that she has purchased. Many of her acquaintances accompany her. One of the young admirers whose mother is a member of the nobility has a tryst with Nana who puts off an older member of high society to “mother” the young man who has become her lover.
Returning to Paris she is pursued by a member of the nobility who is a cuckold and is below contempt as far as Nana is concerned. He attempts to bring her around to his way of thinking that they should have a relationship. She wants no part of it and informs him of his wife’s infidelities, giving him the address of the place where the tryst is taking place.
Abruptly in chapter 8 Nana takes up a conjugal relationship with Fontan, one of the men who has been pursuing her. She refuses to take up the offer of the creditors who want her to move back to her old apartment. She is “in love” and wants to relive her youth with its virginal take on life.
The relationship sours quickly but Nana accepts the beatings she gets as well as having to sell herself to get money to maintain the household (makes for juicy 19th century reading).
In an abrupt turnabout Nana returns to the stage and all the problems associated with that aspect of her life. Fontan is also an actor and she has to deal with their ruptured relationship along with the other ins and outs of the theater.
Zola strains the reader’s credulity when he takes Nana from a down and outer to one of the leading lights in Parisian society. His rationale is that she could portray a member of high society on the stage but she could do so in real life.
More ups and downs as Nana moves from one stratum of society to the next. She is never satisfied with who she is or what she has.
Ultimately Nana dies and Zola describes the intimate details of her ravaged body as it is inspected by some of those that knew her in life, but who have other things on their minds as shown by the refrain “To Berlin, to Berlin, to Berlin.”