Thursday, October 18, 2007

Therese Raquin

Emile Zola (1840-1902)

Well, this book was pretty awesome. It starts in a dingy alley off a the Rue de Seine in Paris. The shop/apartment is inhabited by Madame Raquin, Camille (her sickly son), and Therese (her niece). Camille and Therese grew up together as brother and sister, but they are betrothed. Eventually they enter into a loveless, sexless, listless marriage. Therese is utterly unhappy and lives in a shell of thoughtful silence. Camille doesn't really know anything is wrong. The family has a group of people over each Thursday for dominoes, a clerk, his wife, and a police detective. The plot kicks into high gear when Laurent, a lazy clerk, comes to the get-together. He is mildly attracted to Therese, but she immediately falls for him. He decides that she would be a nice play thing, not really giving a crap about what his friend Camille would think.
Well, things don't really go as Laurent had expected. He falls madly for the forbidden fruit and their love affair takes off. They become so crazed, and Therese becomes so disgusted with Camille's sickliness, that they decide to throw Camille off a boat. The murder is pulled off perfectly, but the consequences cover the remainder of the book.
Therese feels guilt for the crime. She sees her dead husband and nights are hellish for her. Laurent doesn't really feel guilty as much as he is angry at Camille for being in the way. Zola has a scene in the morgue where Laurent sees Camille's body that is chilling. The couple can't even have sex anymore because the specter of Camille hinders any romance.
Madame Raquin is still hanging around at this point, destroyed by the death of her son. She suffers a stroke and is reliant on Laurent and Therese. Eventually the couple get married and no one suspects anything. Yet, even though Laurent and Therese pulled off the perfect murder and got exactly what they wanted, their life is a constant hell.
The couples' miseries are increasingly caused by the specter of Camille. He appears to them in hallucinations, paintings, and in dreams. Eventually he takes the form of Francois, the large orange cat. He is personified by the live mind but dead body of Madame Raquin. The mother, destroyed by grief is thankful for the help of Laurent and Therese, that is, until they get into a huge row about the murder in front of her. Her condition is so bad that they often forget she is even in the room. Madame Raquin now knows about the murder and, after she gets over her shock, hates the couple with a passion. She musters all of her strength for one valient attempt to reveal the truth of the crime. This leads to the most gripping scene in the novel. During the regular Thursday night dominoes game Madame Raquin desperately tries to trace letters on the table. Despite constant interruptions she manages to get out, "Therese and Laurent have..." the killers are terrified of being revealed, but it is here that Madame Raquin's strength dissipates and her hand falls dead to her thigh, she is despondent.
The killers try everything to forget their crime. They fight, Laurent viciously beats Therese and Therese accepts this as a way to free her mind. They each turn to lives of vice, drinking and having affairs, but nothing helps. Finally they both decide to kill the other. Therese has the big knife sharpened and Laurent buys some poison. At the moment of truth they perceive the other's intention and fall into each other's arms in desperate grief. They decide to each take the poison, crumbling on the floor dead. Madame Raquin sits motionless in the chair, "unable to sufficiently gorge her eyes with the hideous sight."
This book is intense. Camille's ghost hovers throughout the narrative, not as a real apparition, but as a unshakable figment of the killers' imaginations. He stays with Laurent through the bite of flesh he took out of his assassin's neck upon being tossed into the Seine. This throbbing purple scar is the dominate symbol of the book. Sometimes Laurent is able to forget the pain it gives him, but it never leaves. Therese's caresses only serve to make the scar stick him with pain.
Zola tells us that there is no earthly way to relieve yourself of the guilt after such a crime.

Rating: 10/10: This is a masterfully written suspense thriller. I can see why it's been adapted to the stage and screen. Rumor has it that Jessica Biel is going to play Therese in an upcoming film. Not sure about that casting choice (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry?). This Zola work doesn't have the breaks of humor that made Nana great, but Therese Raquin is short enough that the intensity doesn't become overbearing.

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