Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola

This book is alive. From the first to the last I saw the story came to life and I was drawn so completely in. It made my heart beat a little faster, and even now I have put the book down, slept and lived through another day, it is still in my head and my heart.

On one hand the story is utterly modern: and it is timeless. It would be so easy to reset in in any period since it was published, and equally easy to take it back through the centuries.

Because this is a story of humanity. Of what people may do to get what they want, and of how they may be destroyed if they reach too far, if they cross certain lines.

A story of emptiness, passion, horror, despair, guilt, revenge …

Thérèse was the daughter of a French sailor and a native woman. Her father took his sister, a haberdasher, to raise with her son. Camille, a bright but sickly child. It was expected that Thérèse and Camille would marry, and marry they did. Not because either one had feelings for the another, but because it didn’t occur to either of them to do anything else, or that life could offer anything more than they already knew.

Zola painted a picture of dark and dull lives, and yet he held me. Somehow, I don’t know how, he planted the idea that something would happen, that it was imperative that I continued to turn the pages.

When Camille tried to pull away from his protective mother life changed. Thérèse met Laurent, a friend of her husband who was everything that her husband was not. A passionate, obsessive relationship grew between them. Their feelings were tangible.

They feared discovery. They knew what they wanted, and they were oblivious to anything else. And so they acted.

That act is stunning. Shocking. A flash of light in a dark story, and it is executed quite brilliantly.

It may sound like an end, but it came early in the story.

The knowledge of what they had done, the consequences of what they had done, were corrosive. For Thérèse. For Laurent. And for their relationship.

For a while it isn’t clear where the story will go. The pair seem trapped, in lives overtaken by guilt, horror and despair. But then something snaps. A downward spiral leads to a devastating conclusion.

Zola handles all of this magnificently.

The bleak street, the house, where Thérèse and her family lived and worked was described so vividly, the atmosphere was so claustrophic, it was utterly real.

And he deployed his cast – four principals, four supporting players, and a cat – so cleverly. Each was essential. Each had more than one role to play. Their story has broad strokes, and it has small details too, and they all work together beautifully.

The story is desperately dark, but it is honest and never gratuitous. And the story is paramount; everything else is there to support the story, and it is woven in so well that it is never a distraction. You could stop to observe if you chose, or you could be quite naturally swept along by events.

It’s greatest strength is its creator’s understanding of humanity. That allowed him to bring flawed, fallible, utterly real human beings to life on the page. To lay bare their hearts and souls. And to make the evolution of their lives, the extraordinary things that happen, completely understandable.

And so it was that the skill of the author, and the understanding of the author, make this book compelling, horrific, and desperately sad.

18 responses

  1. Sounds good. Germinal (a must-read if you haven’t yet) is an all-time favourite of mine so I’d probably like this one too. I only skimmed your review, I’ll come back to it after I’ve read the book.

    • I haven’t but I have heard great things. I want to read as many of the Rougon-Macquart sequence as I can. and I know they all stand alone but the idea of reading them in sequence appeals. And if I do that Germinal is a little way down the line.

    • I’m actually finding Zola and his contemporaries very readable. The prose is clear, and the stories still stand up. If you’re brave I don’t think you’ll regret it!

  2. I read this last year and loved it. It’s still the only Zola book I’ve read but your post has reminded me of how much I liked his writing and the way he created atmosphere. I have a few of his other novels on my Classics Club list, so I should probably read them sooner rather than later!

    • Maybe Zola would be a good project when you run out of Dunnetts?! And you might want to read The Ladies’ Paradise before the BBC Adaptation?

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  4. On the basis of the two books I’ve reas I would say that Zola understands human nature very well indeed. You should definitely give him a try.

  5. What an amazing, life changing kind of book. I have never read this (or any Zola, in fact) but I am adding it to my mental must read list immediately! I was reading yesterday that BBC are making an adaptation of The Ladies’ Paradise to be shown soon so I was thinking of reading that too.

  6. Pingback: The News Where You Are | Charlotte Reads Classics

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