I started reading “Therese Racquin” by Emile Zola a few days ago. It was around 3:30 in the morning and I had to be up by nine or ten. I love Zola, but it ain’t exactly a Diehard film, if you know what I mean. I was hoping it might help me sleep; after a few great pages of brilliance juxtaposed with the dull greens and greys of unidealized, realistic beauty, the beauty of corruption, I would preferably pass out into virtual nonexistence, a state referred to non-pretentious people as, sleep.
However, Zola failed me. He failed me bigtime, because two hours later, I was 90 pages into Therese Racquin. It’s a page-turner, up there with The Godfather.
It’s about this girl named Therese who watches after her male cousin, Camille, because she was taken in by Camille’s mother, her aunt Mrs. Racquin, after Therese’s mother died and her father gave her away.
Camille is a chronically ill child, and Mrs. Racquin dumps all the love and admiration and care on the lad, “wrenching him away from death ten times a year,” I paraphrase. She spoils him, and into his manhood, she wants to protect him and see that everything goes well for him because he is, without a doubt, the greatest boy in the world.
Meanwhile, Therese is a thoroughly easygoing, caring person, always playing with Camille while the two of them grow up, always by his side, always his best and only friend in a world of hurt and infirmity.
Now dig. I’m a pretty fucking easygoing guy, but wouldn’t you know it, I found myself identifying with Camille first. You see, I lived through a somewhat sickly childhood. As a lifelong asthma and allergy sufferer, incapacitation was always right around the corner. I couldn’t play as rough as the other boys, or swim for longer than a minute or two, because I couldn’t breathe. I was hospitalized more than once growing up. And these conditions caused me weakness to myriad other childhood illnesses: pneumonia, bronchitis, ear infections, influenza, all my life.
My mother always cared for me, and held me up, and watched over me, and sometimes, at the age of 26, I think she still sees me as that little boy who could be stricken at any moment, who always requires the best of treatment in return for such a wretched, irritating life.
Camille grows up to be a real dick, kind of a wishy washy loser with no blood in his veins. If he was kind and generous, he would be fine, but he’s a whiney, greedy little dweeb.
Mrs. Racquin watches him move along in life, and knows that as long as she takes care of everything, nothing will go amiss, and when anything challenges her control, she panics.
Therese remains easygoing, passive, fine with everything, even to the point of betrothal to Camille. She marries him, and for the rest of her life, she’s bound to the smell of sickness in Camille’s bed, the one she shared with him all the time they grew up together.
She’s given up her entire life, you see. Just too easygoing. And she owed a debt of gratitude to the Racquins, for taking her when her parents went away. But now she has no prospects but the shitty ones Mrs. Racquin picks out for her and Camille, the lifeless little skeleton with no ambition, or, as I said, blood.
She meets a guy named Laurent, a huge, muscular, hearty fellow, who does whatever the fuck he wants to, and guess what? She and Laurent begin an affair.
I couldn’t put this book down for 90 pages. I haven’t read like that for years, (I think the last one was the OED), and I realized I swept into the story, the characters, and the human drama. The plot was so simple, each character was so clear, and it MOVED. One thing to the next. Children to adults in 20 pages.
I’ve wrestled with what makes a good character for a long time, and it dawned on me upon realizing why I couldn’t put Therese Racquin down: I related, even to a character beside the protagonist. And everything just happened, no matter what people were feeling. It’s a character-driven book, yes, but people are concerned with the outside world, the Real World (perfect Zola). I got that from reading it. Characters I can relate to, in the same world as me. Amazing.