A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier (2019)

And now for something entirely different!

singlethreadAs most of you know, this blog reflects a passion for classic literature–in particular, my love for the 19th and early 20th centuries knows no bounds. Every once in awhile, though, I read a review on someone’s blog of a more modern novel that for whatever reason piques my interest. When I read Sandra’s (A Corner of Cornwall) review of A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier, something compelled me to read it.

I enjoyed the book immensely. It was just what I’d hoped it would be as a respite and a calm pause to break the day to day turbulence of the news cycle that I often get caught up in. The book is a wonderful character driven account of a subset of people engaged in activities that were new to me and a main character whose emotional journey truly captivated me.

But I enjoyed this book so much more for two items in the story making me realize I probably would never have recognized them had I not started this blog. But first, a brief review.

A Single Thread is a simple story of a woman’s loss and grief and the will to find meaning in a life she otherwise never would have chosen. The book opens in 1932 and centers on Violet Speedwell, an English “surplus woman,” grieving the loss of her brother and fiancé who both died in the Great War. Like many women of a certain age whose prospects for marriage are minimal due to the number of men who died, she is finding it difficult to construct her future. She lives with her mother, herself grieving the loss of her son, and their relationship is difficult and strained. Violet puts in for a job transfer to the nearby cathedral town of Winchester, where she finds herself drawn to the community of embroidering women who make kneelers and seat cushions for the church, which she comes to see as a way for her posterity to be marked.

Violet embodies the great emotional and financial difficulties of these single women within a society that is not sure where they belong or how to treat them, as she struggles against village gossip, physical violence and familial ignorance. In the end, Violet, as we would say today, ‘finds her people’ in the most unlikely characters and creates a family support system that includes biological family and neighborhood friends. For a much more in depth and engaging review, please go to Sandra’s post.

As I read I was surprised by two references that brought to mind some of the reading and writing I have created on this blog as I pursue classic literature.

While I have never been to the city of Winchester, I am aware of a special object mentioned in the novel that it is known for that I recognized from my participation in Witch Week 2017. The theme for that year, “Dreams of Arthur,” gave me the idea to do a piece on King Arthur’s Round Table. A model of sorts exists in the Great Hall at Winchester Castle, believed to have been made in about the year 1290. The table top is 5.5 meters in diameter, weighing in at about 1200kg. It is without its table legs and hangs on the west wall. The artwork on the top dates later, to the reign of Henry VIII and shows a Tudor rose in the center and Henry as King Arthur surrounded by the 24 names of Arthur’s knights. When I saw it mentioned in the novel, with a bit of pride I realize my contribution to Witch Week gives me a secret connection to Winchester Cathedral and its Round Table, whether I have ever been there or not!

winchester

 

selborne

The second reference is to a book one of the characters is reading, Gilbert White’s, The Natural History of Selborne, that celebrates the natural world around the town. Last summer I saw it sitting on a bookstore shelf and found myself immersed in his descriptions of the animals and plants of Selborne and although here, too, is a place I have never been, I was drawn to it as I am with one of my favorite natural histories of a place (I also have never been to), Aldo Leopold’s, The Sand County Almanac, a natural history around Leopold’s home in the state of Wisconsin. I bought the Selborne book laughing to myself at how odd I am, excited about my discovery and wondering if anyone had ever heard of it. Then to find it referenced in a contemporary novel, I was pleased, and the laugh was on me!

I don’t judge my interest in the past and whether or not it has relevance to anything important in the world or my life in the present. After all, I majored in Medieval history. And I don’t know why I am so drawn to the late 19th century now. But the pleasure of seeing these connections in my reading after over four years of concentrating on the classics, gives me a certain satisfaction that history is not a void, but full of threads that from time to time connect themselves into my present. And it is then I know all this immersing myself in a time period long gone is worth it.

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Title: A Single Thread
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Publisher: Viking
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2019
Pages: 336

Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola (1867), #ZolAddiction2019

This life of alternating excitement and calm went on for eight months. The lovers lived in perfect bliss. Thérèse was no longer bored, and had nothing left to wish for; Laurent sated, coddled, heavier than ever, had only one fear, that this delectable existence might come to an end.

 

raquinThe premise of Émile Zola’s, Thérèse Raquin is simple: a man and a woman fall in love, but the woman’s husband is hampering their future plans, so they kill him, guilt ensues and they don’t live happily ever after. A rather common premise. But the way Zola tells it as he gets into the minds of Laurent and Thérèse and describes what lives there results in a thrilling narrative of lies, deceit and descent into depravity.

Thérèse was brought to her aunt when she was an infant by her father after her mother died. She grew up with her cousin, Camille, the only child of Madame Raquin. She has brought him up as a weak and sickly boy who she must always have near her. She decided early on that when the two grew up they would marry. Camille fights for some autonomy from his mother at the beginning of his marriage and decides he wants to move to Paris to find a career.

Madame Raquin uses the proceeds from the sale of her home to buy a haberdashery in what turned out to be a dark and dismal throughway in Paris, called Passage du Pont-Neuf, that she and Thérèse can work in to support the little family and to tide them over until Camille finds a job, which he does at the Orleans Railway Company. Thérèse, who at this point, does not seem to have a mind of her own accepts the fate of a life working in a dingy shop and a passionless marriage. Her outlook changes when Camille brings home his co-worker Laurent and he and Thérèse begin a fanatical love affair. In their overwhelming desire to be together, Thérèse and Laurent think murdering Camille will solve their problem.

One day while boating in the Seine Laurent strangles and pushes Camille out of the boat where it is presumed he has died. Laurent haunts the morgue for weeks hoping to find Camille’s body. When it finally shows up, Laurent realizes the sight of the bloated slimy body will always haunt him. For Thérèse, too, the murder of her husband did not have the effect she had hoped for and her nightmares and wracked nerves give her no peace.

Laurent and Thérèse finally marry, but the fervor that characterized the early weeks of their relationship is gone, because both find the presence of Camille filtering into their waking and sleeping life. In fact, they can’t even sleep together as both feel Camille between them in the bed.

The memory of Camille, his presence, his haunting their days and nights, the murder itself has the opposite effect of allowing their relationship to flourish as the shock and guilt of the crime has ruined any chance of a future together.

Laurent must work and Thérèse must tend to the shop, and neither are happy when together. When Laurent quits his job and rents a garret to further his interest in painting he finds no matter the sex or age of the figures he paints, they all take on the features of Camille; even the dogs and cats he paints reflect him. Thérèse, who is stuck in the shop with her mother-in-law can only go through the motions of serving customers.

When Madame Raquin suffers a physically paralyzing stroke Thérèse must take on her care as well as continuing the work in the shop. A second stroke renders her mute. And as the strain and toll of Camille’s murder wears on Laurent and Thérèse, they stop guarding their tongue in front of the old woman making it apparent they killed her son.

Unable to speak, Madame Raquin tries in the company of some friends to accuse the two and in a suspenseful scene struggles laboriously to lift one finger and begins to air-write the names of Laurent and Thérèse in front of her. But her friends think she means to thank them for their care of her. She is devastated that the murderers will go unpunished and that she is powerless to bring Camille justice. On top of her frustration, Thérèse has taken to making lengthy declarations of remorseful pleas of apology while she sits helplessly in her chair.

The telling of the story is riveting because of the way Zola lets the reader in on the thought processes of the characters. We are lead into the nooks and crannies of the minds of Thérèse and Laurent, but not in a heavy-handed manner. This is not a psychological study into what motivates murderers, even though Zola meticulously describes the phases of their mental state after the murder. These phases are quite damaging and wretched to Thérèse and Laurent as individuals as well as how they treat each other. But Zola describes their unfolding insanity as part of the narrative rather than discussing it as a treatise into the ‘mind of a murderer;’ the difference between a police report vs a psychiatric analysis. For me it is a chilling (and very effective) way to tell a story like this, where emotion is described, but not psychoanalyzed.

At first Thérèse is on top of the world after killing Camille. She spends more time out in the world, has an affair with a younger man, sits at cafes meeting people and starts reading novels which give her a window into adult relationships that she did not grow up with. She understands how her friend Suzanne, like the women in these novels, can accept the difficulties of living in a passionless marriage and still be kind to her husband. In other words, these novels showed her, “it was possible to be happy without killing your husband.”

Weeks and months go by proving to Thérèse and Laurent that getting rid of Camille isn’t giving them their hoped for ‘happily ever after.’ Their once demanding and insatiable drive for each other now fills them with a loathing. Murder is the bucket of cold water against desire.

The lovers made no further attempt to see each other alone. They never arranged a single meeting or even exchanged a furtive kiss. For the time being murder had cooled the voluptuous fevers of their flesh, and by killing Camille they had succeeded in slaking the wild and unquenchable desires which they had failed to satisfy even when crushed in each other’s arms. Crime seemed an acute enjoyment that made their embraces boring and sickening.

The slow deterioration of the couple makes it obvious they cannot go on together haunted as they are both mentally and physically by Camille.

As I turned the pages I could not for the life of me figure out how this was all going to end. If Madame Raquin died and the two were left alone together without her as a buffer or confessor, I couldn’t see how they could stay together without going insane. Maybe the ending is obvious to some, but it left me stunned.

Murder, which came to their minds, seemed natural and inevitable, the logical outcome of the murder of Camille. They did not even weigh the pros and cons, but accepted the idea as the only means of salvation.

But who murdered whom and who got the final vindication is yours to discover if you so choose to read the book?!

Personal Thoughts

I read this in conjunction with #ZolAddiction2019 a reading event of the life and work of Émile Zola hosted by Fanda at Klasikfanda. Thérèse Raquin was written early in his career and the matter of fact way he narrates this murder mystery really worked for me. I responded to his simplicity of describing the complicated descent into insanity, instead of creating a more complicated narrative delving into early life experiences, negative parental influences or traumatic events.

Another point I admire is the fairly self-contained space of the action which is mostly in the shop and the living quarters above it. Except for the scenes in Laurent’s garret and the river where Camille is killed, the characters are confined to these two settings. And if murder is a dirty business, Zola makes the setting fit the atmosphere. His depiction of the little shop Madame Raquin bought that Thérèse is supposed to turn into a money-maker is so viscerally descriptive as a prelude for the moral and physical decay of Thérèse’s future, that you know as a reader, things are not going to go well in any aspect of her life.

As Thérèse entered the shop that from now on was to be her home, she felt as though she were going down into a newly-dug grave. A sort of nausea seized her in the throat and she shuddered. She looked at the dingy, damp arcade, went over the shop, went upstairs, went round each room, and these bare unfurnished rooms were terrifying in their solitude and decay. She could not move or utter a word, but was chilled through and through. When her aunt and husband had gone downstairs again she sat on a trunk. Her hands were numbed and her breast was bursting with sobs but she could not cry.

Thank you to Fanda and to all the ZolAddicts for opening my eyes to a new author!

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My Edition
Title: Thérèse Raquin
Author: Émile Zola
Publisher: Penguin
Device: Paperback
Year: 1867
Pages: 256

#ZolAddiction2019