I ended up feeling pretty disgusted by Zola after finishing Nana. The only other book of Zola's that I've read was La Curée - I read it during my semester abroad in Paris. I don't remember the narrative arc exactly, but it's about an aristocratic woman who marries into the nouveau riche of real estate speculators during Haussmanization. The woman - so went hte professor - stands in for the old Paris and so while developers mutilate the old city, the same thing happens to her.
Nana is a sort of opposite plot. She is born a petite bourgeoise, becomes a prostitute, and slowly rises up through the theater to become a wealthy, coveted courtesan. The book is amazing, fabulously written and rich and brutal..but nearly every character is corrupt, perverted, sick, and Zola describes Nana as the fly that passes the disease around. She becomes a kind of Dorian Gray - a beautiful, desirable creature who absorbs all the filth around her and is ultimately destroyed by it.
At the beginning, I really liked Nana. She was stupid but kind, unaffected, charming. But she plays all of her cards wrong and burns her bridges - falling in love with a man who beats her, spending extravagantly and always beyond her means, embarrassing her patrons. In the process she becomes crass, unkind, repulsive. Of course she finally catches a horrible disease and dies, disfigured, her life of vice written all over her beautiful body. An by that time there was some satisfaction in her death, some release.
But I hated Zola for writing these books where women, as symbols, suffer and die to pay for - or just embody - the sins of all.