My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I was walking through my friend’s house when I found this book randomly on a shelf. A 99 cent penguin classic. My friend’s mom had died and she was preparing the house for an estate sale. Her parents smoked Marlboro Lights for fifty plus years in that house, and everything – including Thérèse Raquin – was yellow and smelled of tobacco. The flesh and body of the narrative turned out to be the same, yellow, describing the decay over time of a couple of cowards who sought to fool the world, and ended in fooling only themselves.
I chose the book the same way I choose any book; turn randomly to a page and start reading. I was excited because I had not read much of Zola. This was his first major novel, published in 1867 when he was 27 years old. Zola was quite wealthy and famous by his writing and politics, both of which had an impact in 19th century Paris, and may have been murdered (over the latter) when a chimney sweep later confided that he plugged up Zola’s chimney deliberately, causing him to die by carbon monoxide poisoning in 1902. Zola now shares a crypt with Victor Hugo in the Panthéon.
The first half of the book was interesting. A good story. I was pretty excited to discover what would happen next. All the characters were set up in rubber band like tension against one another, and I was just waiting to see which one would snap! And for sure they did snap. The aftermath (the second half of the book) was a big let down. There’s a whole lot more telling than showing, and Zola goes into long-winded psychological analysis of the characters as they quickly become unhinged. Apparently he called this a study of ‘temperaments’. But there is little development of plot and the scene is planted rather firmly inside a dingy house above a haberdashery. The story dries up in there, and I felt pulled alongside the author in his psycho-babble for far too long.
This story could have been a winner if you cut out about two thirds of the second half. I imagine something got lost in translation. I should try and polish up my French and try reading the original text. The book was met with widespread disapproval if not condemnation by the general public in 1867. I can see why. There’s not much in the way of redemption, it is nihilistic. Even François, the house cat, is not spared. I thought to myself: come on, now! Zola! Give us somebody to love!