Father Goriot actually centers on the life of Eugene Rastignac, a law student and ambitious young man living in a boarding house in one of Paris' working class neighborhoods where also lives Father Goriot -- as the boarders call Goriot, a retired businessman whose first name we never learn. It follows Eugene's attempts to establish himself in Parisian society, in which Goriot's two daughters are already prominent members.
Eugene becomes friends with and eventually the protector of Goriot, once a very wealthy man who on retirement had sold his business, used most of his fortune to provide dowries that established his daughters in Paris society, and was living humbly in the seedy boarding house so he could devote himself to his daughters success and happiness.
Eugene is quickly disillusioned by the utter depravity of Paris' upper class, while still being driven to become part of it. He eventually becomes entangled with Goriot and his daughters' lives, one of whom Eugene is having an affair with, as the daughters relentlessly drain the old man financially, emotionally and finally physically.
What turns many people off to 'literature," I've thought, is the belief that it's dry and even boring reading, and maybe lofty ND hard to understand, when actually the opposite is true. The "classics" are good reading; good stories, interesting, characters you can get involved with, and pretty simply told.
What they do have, that what I'll call average writing doesn't have, is what you might call depth. Father Goriot is just dense, for instance, with insightful observation on life and human nature coming from a smart guy who's an excellent observer of human nature. At times Balzac pauses the narrative to expound on something or gives a character a platform to pontificate on something. Anyone can stop the story and give a speech. I'm always reminded of when John Wayne stops The Alamo, his attempt at move making, so he can make one of his corny speeches. They're so clumsily done that you want to laugh, but when that kind of aside flows seamlessly from the narrative and deepens your understanding of the narrative, the ins and outs of human nature playing out in the narrative, it becomes part of the narrative, and if you're engaged in that you're engaged in the aside.
I'll leave it and that and end with a couple of passages I copied from an online copy of Father Goriot at the Gutenburg Project. There are other free online sources for the book, too. I listened to the Librivox.org reading by James Carson, which is entirely sufficient. Librivox recordings are now posted in several formats making for handier playback.
He meant, like all great souls, that his success should be owing entirely to his merits; but his was pre-eminently a southern temperament, the execution of his plans was sure to be marred by the vertigo that seizes on youth when youth sees itself alone in a wide sea, uncertain how to spend its energies, whither to steer its course, how to adapt its sails to the winds.
What could this old Goriot have been but a splash of mud in his daughters' drawing-rooms? He would only have been in the way, and bored other people, besides being bored himself. And this that happened between father and daughters may happen to the prettiest woman in Paris and the man she loves the best; if her love grows tiresome, he will go; he will descend to the basest trickery to leave her. It is the same with all love and friendship. Our heart is a treasury; if you pour out all its wealth at once, you are bankrupt. We show no more mercy to the affection that reveals its utmost extent than we do to another kind of prodigal who has not a penny left. Their father had given them all he had. For twenty years he had given his whole heart to them; then, one day, he gave them all his fortune too. The lemon was squeezed; the girls left the rest in the gutter."
Note on The Human Comedy
Although it's a complete novel in itself, Father Goriot is one of nearly 100 works Balzac wrote that are considered to be a kind of a series, related in that many have interconnected storylines and recurring characters, known of as The Human Comedy. A Balzac reading group has compiled a Suggested Reading Order of The Human Comedy.