Eugénie Grandet is ahead of its time.
Is it because it’s about a strong female character capable of acting of her own accord?
Is it because it was the beginnings of the Balzac’s tour de force?
No; it’s because Eugénie Grandet, from start to finish, is not driven by supernatural forces beyond the kin of the characters, but by the actions of characters themselves. The plot, in other words, is entirely character-driven.
First we have Guillaume Grandet, whose suicide sparks the chain of events that sends Charles to the provinces, which in turn causes all the pieces to fall into place: Eugénie falls in love; M. Grandet causes, indirectly, the death of his wife; Charles becomes a roughneck in the untamed west; etc.
So, really, nothing happens in the novel that you wouldn’t expect from a 19th century melodrama. That which makes it stick out is the way in which the complete ordinary things happen: No unexpected parcel comes in the mail to save the day, it comes from a greedy old man; no crazy uncle is lowered down on strings to pay off Guillaume’s debts, it’s only done through Eugénie’s meddling; no unexpected wagon runs over Mme. Grandet, she dies of a heartbreak brought on by her husband’s miserliness. No, Balzac, in Eugénie Grandet, took the god out of the machine, and set new standards for authors everywhere.
Of course, I’m not saying a little bit of god in the machine bad. The unexpected and plotty things that happen in The Toilers of the Sea don’t make it horrible; it’s just that, you know, sometimes it’s just… clichéd to have Zeus stopping by to say hello every other scene. Eugénie Grandet would have been fine with a little bit of god in the machine, but what makes it so utterly remarkable is that Balzac managed completely fine without Zeus dangling his thunderbolt in some sort of ethereal lighting cue.
Overall, I’d give the book a nine on a scale of Suite Française to Twilight, with Suite Française* being an eleven and Twilight being a zero.
*Suite Française being my favourite book of all time.