Set in Paris, first published in 1867, I would classify it as a gothic novel - there are no castles, but there is a haunting. It has that classic mixture of romance and horror, with a macabre twist at the end.
Therese is the orphaned daughter of a French soldier and an African princess. Left with her aunt as a baby, Therese is raised as a companion for her invalid cousin. Every natural impulse is stifled as this healthy child lives an enforced existence of stillness and quiet. Therese is even made to take her cousin's medicines, as he won't take them unless she does too.
When the cousins are old enough, the aunt arranges for them to marry, to ensure that her beloved son will always have someone to look after him. As each piece of Therese's inner character is revealed, vibrant and alive, in contrast to the dark, damp shop in which the family come to live, the reader knows that eventually she must break free from these constraints.
This is how Therese sees the small circle of guests who gather at the Raquin table every Thursday night to play dominoes:
"Therese could not find one human being, not one living being among these grotesque and sinister creatures, with whom she was shut up; sometimes she had hallucinations, she imagined herself buried at the bottom of a tomb, in company with mechanical corpses, who, when the strings were pulled, moved their heads, and agitated their legs and arms. The thick atmosphere of the dining-room stifled her; the shivering silence, the yellow gleams of the lamp penetrated her with vague terror, and inexpressible anguish. ... until eleven o'clock, she remained oppressed in her chair, watching Francois (the cat) whom she held in her arms, so as to avoid seeing the cardboard dolls grimacing around her."
There are so many wild emotions bottled up inside Therese that an explosion of passion and tragedy seem inevitable. Nor is the reader disappointed.
The spark comes when Therese's husband, Camille, brings home an old friend from their childhood. Laurent's main attraction lies in his physical contrast to the weak creatures with whom Therese is surrounded. He is strong, with large hands and a thick "bull-like" neck that fascinates Therese. However, any sense that he will be a romantic saviour for Therese is offset by his self-confessed greed and laziness. Laurent is no hero - but compared to Camille, his brutish physical ardour is irresistable.
The reader's premonition of tragedy is enhanced by the portrait which Laurent paints of Camille:
"The next day, when Laurent had given the canvas the last touch, all the family assembled to go into raptures over the striking resemblance. The portrait was vile, a dirty grey colour with large violescent patches. Laurent could not use even the brightest colours, without making them dull and muddy. In spite of himself he had exaggerated the wan complexion of his model, and the countenance of Camille resembled the greenish visage of a person who had met death by drowning. The grimacing drawing threw the features into convulsions, thus rendering the sinister resemblance all the more striking. But Camille was delighted; he declared that he had the appearance of a person of distinction on the canvas."
An affair begins between Therese and Laurent, and to Laurent's surprise, he finds that Therese, whom he had thought ugly, flowers into beauty when her features are animated.
I will not spoil the rest of the story - you can go to Wikipedia if you want to know what happens next - or better still, read the book! Just don't expect a happy-ever-after ending!
Zola has a talent for description, and at each stage of the book, the environment mirrors the emotions of the characters:
"Nothing looks more painfully calm than an autumn twilight. The sun rays pale in the quivering air, the old trees cast their leaves. The country, scorched by the ardent beams of summer, feels death coming with the first cold winds. And, in the sky, there are plaintive sighs of despair. Night falls from above, bringing winding sheets in its shade."
This is not a book I would advise reading before bedtime! The scenes in the morgue are particularly gruesome.
It is a psychological horror story whose main theme is divine justice. Those who do wrong are not punished by social forces, but their guilt means they find no rest or happiness until they finally punish themselves. It is well written and the moral is conveyed through the actions and emotions of the characters - there is no external moralising by the author to interrupt the flow of the story.
I read Therese Raquin in easy installments emailed to me by Daily Lit.