I must have read hundreds of books in my lifetime (maybe more? I feel a bit of maths coming on!) but for some reason, scenes from ‘Thérèse Raquin’ come back to me quite regularly. I have no idea why, other than perhaps it’s because I studied the original in French and scrutinised the text in great detail. I also seem to recall there was a TV adaptation in the 1980’s?
In the rooms above a haberdashery in a dank back-street of Paris, a pair of lovers, Thérèse and Laurent, embarks upon a clandestine affair. Thérèse’s calm, almost static exterior belies her inner life as a passionate woman. Having spent her life with the pallid, sickly cousin to whom she is later married, Laurent brings about her sexual awakening. Desire drives away all reason and the pair plot to kill Thérèse’s husband, Camille, so that they can be together. On a day out at the river, Laurent drowns Camille. After a respectable period of mourning, Thérèse and Laurent are married, but their union is blighted by the ghost of Thérèse’s husband.
This is a dark, dark book. Published in 1867, it was criticised for being pornographic. Interestingly, the ensuing debate allowed Zola to answer his critics by means of a preface to the second edition of the book – which was great for sales! The setting is dark and the emotions are base. Despite being over 150 years old, this novel is a fascinating examination of the essence of humanity. It is worth knowing that Zola used the text to examine theories about Naturalism, the ideas that people are essentially ‘human beasts’, driven by the same instincts as animals. He wanted to study temperament, not character. Don’t let the notion of theories put you off – the book really has stood the test of time.
Whilst writing this review, I discovered that a new film adaptation of the novel was released in February 2014 as ‘In Secret’, an American production starring Elizabeth Olsen as Thérèse and Jessica Lange as Madame Raquin, Camille’s mother. I’ll look out for a copy.
By the way, you will be relieved to know that I am certain that the reason the book is so vivid is not that I am involved in an adulterous relationship with a man from the Railway Board, nor am I planning to dunk my husband in the Cherwell so that I can take off with my paramour. It’s just a gripping read. Honestly!