I didn't think Budding Grove
is a bit weaker than Swann's Way
but still, its like saying Breyer's isn't as good as Friendly's - like, ok, but it's still ice cream! So pretty much it's still great.
I WILL SAY: this one has more plot, and it's really the introduction to Marcel as our narrator. Plus so much happens and yet doesn't happen. M. tells his family that he wants to be a writer, which they think is kind of absurd but they're okay with it, but instead of writing he pretty much just daydreams/stalks Mme. Swann and her daughter Gilberte. These are the first women our narrator fall in love with, and represent his first illusions of love lost. He becomes really obsessed with Gilberte and has a break with her, and he is consumed with this jealousy when she doesn't respond to his letters or invite him over. He's eventually cured of this melancholy by being brought to Balbec, where he becomes obsessed with a "little gang" of girls, including Andre and Albertine who he falls in love with at different times.
Running parallel with this story of abandoned illusions about love, is the likewise lost illusions of art. M. values are very much, and even as a youth/adolescent he has a sophisticated taste in literature and paintings and theatre. His idols in these fields (Bergotte, Elstir, and Berma) are all taken down a peg through his introduction into society (esp. in volume three), and he sort of comes to terms with popular opinion of art.
M. also meets the Baron de Charlus who I think is hilarious in a creepy, socially awkward, high-brow, society kind of way. He's basically this flamboyant society man who is kind of an asshole to M. and then creepily stares at him, and then pretends like he was never an asshole, and then is kind of an asshole again. He's pretty entertaining.
This book also marks Marcel's first foot in the door of society, as represented by the Guermantes family. We meet Robert Saint Loup, Charlus, and Mme. Villeparisis who all play a pretty important role in getting him invited to things like parties and creepy late night rendezvous and stuff later on. The key take away from this book is that everyone is insane. Society people, insane. Girls, insane. Artists, insane. Marcel, deluded and maybe a little sociopathic? Insane.