I've been meaning to read Effi Briest for such a long time I actually can't believe I've finally read it. I found it a few years ago now in Barter Books and it was the comparison with Madame Bovary on that back cover that first attracted me. It was written by the German author Theodor Fontane and first published in 1896, and it is based (and this is not meant to be unkind) on a tried-and-tested model: an unsuitable marriage that results in adultery and ends in tragedy, like Madame Bovary, and also Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1878) or George Sand's Indiana (1832) to name a few.
'Tried-and-tested' the model may be, but I'd say Fontane really makes this his own. He tells the story of Effi Briest, a young woman (aged seventeen) marries a man over twenty years her senior - Baron Geert von Innstetten, a marriage which will greatly improve her social status. Like Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, and Indiana Delmare before her, it is a doomed marriage: she has great energy, enthusiasm, and a wild imagination not suited to be left for long periods as she is whilst her husband works (he is a politician). Largely isolated, her imagination runs wild and she begins to believe the house his haunted by a Chinese man who died having had an affair; Innstetten does little to reassure her. After the birth of their daughter Annie, an associate of Innstetten, Major Crampas, comes into the picture. He has the reputation of being a womaniser, yet despite this and indeed what can be described as a dark omen in a conversation with her lady's maid Roswitha as well as the ghost, Effi has an affair. She almost gets away with it too, but ultimately she is found out and becomes a complete outcast.
It's a very moving story in which we learn not only what happens when marriage goes wrong in 19th Century Germany, but also on an ideal marriage, what it ought to be, and the sacrifices young Effi is supposed to make. Innstetten is not a bad man, he is like Bovary, kind, hardworking, but not passionate enough for a young woman like Effi. The two of them seem to lack any real choice, duty dictates to both of them and in a way they are victims of the stifling society that expects too much from too little. But, as one would expect from this era, it is the woman, it is Effi, who is the real victim of this drama.