In Secret, and the stage version was produced on Broadway last season with Keira Knightley in the title role. The book itself is a good read, being mercifully short for a nineteenth-century novel, with very little fat. It's also a proto-noir, certainly inspiring writers like James M. Cain,
The title character is a young woman who is the child of a sea captain and an African woman. She is sent to live with her aunt, who has a meek son, Camille. Therese is basically raised to marry her cousin: "Therese was not consulted; she had always displayed such passive obedience that her aunt and husband no longer took the trouble to ask her opinion. She went where they went, she did what they did, without a complaint, without a reproach, without appearing even to be aware that she changed her place of residence."
She does marry him, and is miserable. Camille and Madame Raquin are unaware of her misery. She meets a friend of Camille's, Laurent, a struggling artist, and it's lust at first sight. They have an affair (pretty racy stuff for 1867, but it is French): "They contemplated one another for a few seconds. Then, with a violent movement, Laurent bent down, and pressed the young woman to him. Throwing back her head he crushed her mouth beneath his lips. She made a savage, angry effort to revolt, and, then all at once gave in. They exchanged not a word. The act was silent and brutal."
That word brutal is important, because Zola paints this pair as creatures of the jungle rather than civilized society. They finally decide to kill Camille, and on a pleasant Sunday take him out in a boat and dump him in the water. In order to keep suspicion at bay, they separate for a year, and eventually lose interest in each other.
But then, in a cruel twist of fate, Madame Raquin thinks that Therese should be remarried, and who would be a better husband than Laurent, their faithful friend. The pair, stunned by events, do get married but now pretty much hate each other. The guilt of killing Camille is with them--Laurent imagines his corpse in bed with them, and a scar on his neck from when Camille bit him during the murder continues to plague him. He begins to beat Therese, and when she becomes pregnant she maneuvers so he will kick her in the stomach until she miscarries.
Then there's Madame Raquin, who suffers a paralytic stroke and overhears that her beloved niece/daughter-in-law killed her only son. She attempts to tell others, but is too weak. She must sit by while these people have complete control over her. It makes for great drama.
Eventually Therese and Laurent decide they are going to kill each other. This is so noir, and the whole thing is reminiscent of Double Indemnity, minus the mother. Needless to say it ends badly for everyone.
I had never read any Zola before. He is best known for his role in the Dreyfus affair, when he wrote a letter called "J'Accuse," condemning the prosecutors of a Jewish officer for espionage. It was the subject of the Oscar-winning film The Life of Emile Zola.