Balzac explores the artistic life of Paris in 1821-22, and furthermore the nature of the artistic life generally. He does it in a great way. He starts a simple story of a weak young man helped by an older, more experienced and cunning tutor and then it explodes into a multi-novel epic. The narrative is powerful enough to carry readers past any of the flaws – I wasn’t bored for one single second. The deception, corruption, and trickery, at every level of society are brilliantly displayed, often almost off-hand, in casual conversation because everyone expects nothing different. There's a great cast of secondary characters, too, from the maids Herrera uses in his carefully orchestrated plans to various members of high society. I liked this book especially because, although Balzac doesn't do badly with the romance he builds his novel around, he doesn't really have much patience for it. He, like me, is not a romantic person at heart, believing in more primal instincts – survival, cunning, logic. Love doesn’t conquer all: no one is ever allowed to forget that Esther is a whore and likes her job, that it's practically in her blood and that she can be little else, no matter how hard she tries and no matter how much she adores her poor, infatuated, ambitious Lucien. Criminals are perceived similarly – the author even admires them for being true to themselves and their instincts. Small wonder Vautrin steals the show in every part of his series.Balzac's writing, even at its messiest, it's never less than forceful. The best thing about him is that he never offers a didactic or 'social' novel (mind you we are dealing here with an 19th century writer!), and ultimately it's for the best that he lets himself get carried away by the nasty criminals so readily. A novel meant to be about prostitution, with a courtesan (or harlot) in the title, manages to dispense with her services for its entire final part: that's a bit odd but entirely deliberate. Balzac knows where his strengths lie and when Esther (or, especially, Lucien, the weakest link in the chain) no longer serves her/ his narrative purposes the author is quick to brush them aside and concentrate on the anti-hero he can have the most fun with. A Harlot High and Low is part of Balzac's grand 'Human Comedy' series, and like many of his novels it's one that seems to get out of hand. It seems too long; what's more the author simply doesn’t have any patience to describe good moments in full – the happy four-year period Lucien and Esther were granted by Herrera occupies...one paragraph.And speaking of that period…I do wonder how Esther managed such a long seclusion. During that time she led a life of a vampire and should have succumbed to serious depression – think about vitamin D deficiency among other things…also the obsession of the rich old banker with a prostitute was presented a bit over the top. Well- different times, different criteria.At last, Balzac's inability to make Esther and Lucien more forceful heroes, do prevent A Harlot High and Low from being a great novel, but it's nevertheless a very good one.