Theresa Raquin is the third Zola (1840 to 1904-France) novel I have read since I began my blog July 2009. I first read Nana, centering on a prostitute very much without a heart of gold, and then The Belly of Paris. The Belly of Paris was set in the huge food markets of 19th century Paris. Both of these works are part of Zola's twenty part cycle of novels The Les Rougon-Macquant which centers on one family and is meant to give a full picture of French life in the 1870s period. Theresa Raquin is not part of the cycle of novels but it is considered his first major novel. It was first published in serial fashion in a popular magazine.
Zola seems to be looked on as a second or third tier 19th century French novelist, behind Flaubert, Balzac, or Hugo in quality and cultural regard. Of course he is behind Flaubert in quality (who really is not). As to Balzac and Hugo, I have not read enough to personally give an opinion but I respect the opinions of those who have. That being said, Zola is very much worth reading if you want a raw slice of 19th century French life in a novel with lots of action and interesting characters by a writer who knows how to tell a good story.
The lead character of the novel, a woman named "Theresa Raquin", has been pushed by a very dominating aunt into an unhappy marriage to a cousin. Her husband, Camille, is sickly and sees her more as a servant/nurse than a woman with whom he has a passionate relationship. Theresa begins a love affair with a friend of her husband, a hard drinking, work disliking bad boy type named "Laurent". Laurent has a simple practical reason for starting an affair with Theresa. He figures she would be cheaper than prostitutes! They do begin a love affair and decide to drown her husband so they can move in together.
Ford Madox Ford called Zola a naturalist. By this he means an author who sees humanity as a beast with few if any redeeming qualities. As Theresa Raquin proceeds guilt begins to take over the minds of the two killers. Their relationship quickly evolves into a series of brutal fights and mutual distrust. Each begin to see the other as the lead figure in the murder. The aunt moves in with them and is also abused. She begins to suffer great mental torment when she learns of the murder as she had actually pushed her niece into the marriage after her husband disappeared. (His body was never found and he was just assumed dead). Things proceed and the story comes to a perhaps predictable but still satisfying conclusion.
Theresa Raquin is a fast read. It kept me interested. The characterizations are very well done. The story line is not at all difficult to follow. This is not a "hard to read" book at all. The over all plot line is hardly a groundbreaking idea but it is very well done by Zola. I could really feel the horrible changes in the relationship of Theresa and Laurent.
Life advise from this book? Do not expect a marriage to a fellow conspirator in a murder to go well and women should avoid at all cost a marriage to man who first began his relationship with them because he feels that they will be cheaper for him than prostitutes.
In the world of Theresa Raquin everything comes down to the need for money to satisfy the basic instincts of people. Men are predators or fools and women are either prostitutes (or close too it) or duped by a man into romantic love so he can get free sex from her and a domestic slave. People work their lives away in coal mines and grim factories so the owners (or their grandsons) can have money for nights out on the town in the company of Nana and her coworkers. I have read only three of Zola's many novels and I will for sure read more. I might at some point decide to read in order the 20 novel cycle. (As of now this is sort of a weak might, probably I will just read the two or three best Zola I have not yet read). Maybe there is a brighter world to be found in some of his other novels.
The Edward Vizetelly translation from 1901 (I read the book via Dailylit.com) read very well for me. It may be a partially censored translation (those shocking French being too much for the English speaking literary world in 1901) but it is a free read!
Of the three Zola novels I have read, I think Nana is clearly the best, no contest here. I found The Belly of Paris more interesting than Theresa Raquin because to me the subject matter was more interesting and it has some great set pieces about different characters in the market that are really brilliant. Theresa Raquin is for sure a very much worth reading novel but it does look into a dark closed in world.
Please leave any suggestion you might have on future Zola reads or any thoughts you might have as to how he should be ranked among the great French novelists of the 19th century.