I'm in a strange reading mood at the moment -- I have started about five books in the last few days and while none of them are duds, so I will finish them eventually, none of them seems to be quite what I am feeling like reading right now. This is the only one I've managed to finish. I had so loved Zola's Nana, and had grabbed this from the shelves of the university library because I wanted to read more of this great author. I also remembered a TV adaptation a long time ago which made a great impression on me. It turns out that this book has been made into plays (and later films and later TV) almost since it first appeared in the mid nineteenth century and you can see why -- it is an extraordinarily powerful story and a very dramatic one. It tells the story of a young woman, Therese Raquin, who has been brought up by her aunt, a respectable woman who runs a haberdasher's shop in Paris. When Therese is of age, Mme Raquin engineers a marriage with her son Camille, a sickly, weak, spoilt boy, and Therese, with her usual passive indifference, acquiesces. Her life seems empty and meaningless and the future "totally void". Into this quiet, unhappy household one evening comes a young man, Laurent. Tall, healthy, full-blooded, of peasant stock, he makes an immediate impression on Therese, who "had never seen a real man before". Soon the two are caught in a passionate, obsessive affair, and can think of nothing else except the desire to be together. Only Camille stands in their way, and one summer day on an river outing, Laurent manages to push him from their boat and allows him to drown. Their desire is now fulfilled but it brings nothing but misery and despair. Although they marry after a decent interval, they are haunted by their guilt and their passion turns to hatred and destruction.
Therese Raquin was one of Zola's earliest novels, and his stated intention was, as he wrote in his preface, "first and foremost a scientific one". His two central characters, he says, "are human animals, nothing more", and he asks the reader to read the novel remembering that "each chapter is a study of a curious physiological case". How boring would that be if it was all this novel consisted of! But of course it goes far beyond this rather simplistic intention. It is a wonderfully imaginative, atmospheric piece of writing, macabre, tragic, gruelling, and one which will stay with me for a long time.