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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Love Story

Émile Zola

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To purchase A Love Story

Title: A Love Story
Author: Émile Zola
Genre: Novel
Written: 1878 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 282 pages
Original in: French
Availability: A Love Story - US
A Love Story - UK
A Love Story - Canada
Une page d'amour - Canada
Une page d'amour - France
Ein Blatt Liebe - Deutschland
Una pagina d'amore - Italia
  • French title: Une page d'amour
  • The eighth volume in the Rougon-Macquart series
  • Translated by Helen Constantine
  • With an introduction and notes by Brian Nelson
  • Previously translated as: Hélène: a love episode, tr. Mary Neal Sherwood (1878); A Love Episode, Vizetelly-editions (1886/1895); A Page of Love, tr. T.F.Rogerson (1897); A Love Episode, tr. C.C.Starkweather (1905); A Love Affair, tr. Jean Stewart (1957)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : some excess of passions, but much that is very, very good

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       A Love Story is almost entirely set in Passy, at the time still very much on the periphery of Paris. The recently widowed Hélène Grandjean has settled here with her delicate daughter, Jeanne, aged eleven and a half when the story opens. Her daughter's fragile state -- a sickly constitution, apparently inherited (even as Hélène has always been a picture of health) -- keeps her largely housebound and focused on the child -- yet it is Jeanne's extreme clinginess that is even more pronounced. Desperately jealous of almost any attention that her mother receives from others, Jeanne makes -- and will continue in this story to make -- it very difficult for her mother to in any way move on with her life, especially in entering a new relationship with a man.
       The basics of the story are simple. It begins with another of Jeanne's crises, a desperate Hélène finding their usual doctor out on a call and instead turning to her neighbor, the thirty-five-year-old Doctor Henri Deberle, for help. The focus is on the gravely ill child, but there is almost immediately a small spark between the two. So, for example, even in these stressful circumstances, he can't help but look her over -- and observe that: "He had never seen a woman with such a regular, beautiful face"
       When Hélène goes to thank the doctor she encounters his wife, the lively Juliette, and she is soon a frequent guest in the household. Henri and Hélène's passion for each other simmers in the background, but eventually must flare up -- and when Hélène overhears Juliette planning an assignation with the youngster Malignon she takes steps to keep Juliette from going through with it, awkwardly leading to her and Henri finally coming together. While she had been happily married, Hélène had never felt the passion of love, but there's no doubt that's what she feels for Henri -- but it is almost too much for her. Meanwhile, she also has an earnest, admirable suitor in the forty-five-year-old Rambaud, the brother of the wise local Abbé Jouve who has been so helpful to her in these trying times of her widowhood; a regular Tuesday dinner at her home with the two of them is long the only social activity she had engaged in.
       Rambaud proposes to her, or at least floats the idea, but gives her as much time as she needs to think about it. A sensible match -- he would obviously be, in every respect, a good husband, and is attentive to Jeanne --, Hélène can't work up any passion for him, however. As to Henri, she can't think straight about him, so overwhelmed is she by pure passion .....
       Jeanne complicates matters. Sensing the men's interest in her mother -- and then her mother's lust for the doctor -- she turns in turn against both Rambaud (for a while) and Henri, doing her best (also subconsciously) to sabotage her mother's interest in them and keep her close and closer -- with, of course, the blunt weapon of her sickliness the one that she can wield most effectively. Problematically, of course, the greatest damage she can inflict with it is to herself .....
       Jeanne's crises are the climaxes and turning points in the novel, the poor suffering child at death's door more than once. They are of course also emotionally and physically draining for those attending to her, especially her mother, but also everyone else, including Rambaud, who dotes on the child and has a warm relationship with her (most of the time), and ultimately helpless Henri, who is banned from the sickroom during Jeanne's final drawn-out decline but still comes for news daily: "Every day he went up to the apartment, received the same answer, and went away" (this daily response ? Madame tells the servant: "Tell him she's dying").
       A Love Story is very much a novel of longing and waiting -- the longing cautious, the waiting drawn out. Paris, spread out before them, is symbolic of this, as mother and daughter often stare out at the metropolis, barely ever having ventured into it after even more than a year in Plassy, attracted to the bright lights and big city but also overwhelmed by it and its potential:

It was like the open sea, with its mysterious never-ending waves. Paris was unfolding, as vast as the sky.
       Abbé Jouve does worry that the widow lives too withdrawn -- "You don't get out enough, you don't have a very normal life" -- but when Hélène does venture out she is thrown into a greater state of confusion. Juliette's sociableness -- she needs the buzz of activity around her -- or the manipulative Mother Fétu, always out to wheedle money or benefit from her benefactors, but also sharp-eyed enough to see what's up with Henri and Hélène before they've really grasped it, churn up more than Hélène can handle. So also Zola's resolution of the novel has Hélène turn to the safest, most reässuring option -- and, tellingly, abandon Paris.
       There's an underlying erotic heat to much of the novel, expertly handled by Zola. The pre-pubescent Jeanne and her feverish states are one unlikely manifestation, from when Henri is first called to attend to her: while hers is: "the innocent naked body of the little girl, who had thrown back the covers" -- looking: "like an infant Christ" ! -- clothes and underclothes are scatter about, "the intimate possessions of this woman were on shocking display", as Hélène, so concerned for her daughter, throws discretion to the wind. Jeanne is all innocence, but she is also a vessel -- reflecting also her mother's own confused reserve and inhibitions:
She never consented to explain anything clearly. She herself didn't know. She had pain there when the doctor came too close to her mother; and she placed her two hands on her chest.
       The final time Henri attends to the child there's an erotic charge as the child seems to sense what this man has meant and been to her beloved mother:
Her nightdress was undone and you could see her childish chest, and scarcely visible naissant swelling of her breasts. And nothing was more chaste or heartbreaking than this puberty already touched by Death. She had not resisted the hands of the old doctor at all. But as soon as Henri's fingers touched her, a sort of jolt went through her body. A fierce modesty roused her from the unconscious state into which she had sunk. She made a movement like a woman taken by surprise, violated, she clutched at her breast with her two poor thin little arms and stammered in a trembling voice
     And she opened her eyes. When she recognized the man standing over her, she was terrified. She saw her nakedness, she sobbed in shame, rapidly drawing the sheet up around her. In her agony she seemed to have aged by ten years all at once, and, near to death, her twelve years were enough to understand that this man should not touch either her, or her mother through he. She cried again, in a desperate call for help
       The most erotically charged scene, and one of the novel's strongest, -- about as good a sexless sex scene as you'll find -- has Jeanne convince her mother to take a turn on a swing. Decorously Hélène even ties her skirt around her ankles with a piece of string, to avoid revealing her legs to those gathered there, but:
Despite the string holding them together, her skirts billowed out and revealed her white ankles. And you felt she was in her true element, breathing and living in the air as though that were her true home.
     'Faster, faster !'
     Monsieur Rambaud, red-faced and perspiring, pushed as hard as he could. There was a little cry. Hélène was swinging still higher.
     'Oh, Maman ! Oh, Maman !' Jeanne shouted in ecstasy.
     She had sat down on the lawn looking at her mother with her small hands clasped to her chest as though she herself had drunk in all the air that was blowing. She gasped instinctively following the long oscillations of the swing with the rhythm of her shoulders. And she was shouting:
     'Harder, harder !'
     Her mother was going higher still. At the top her feet touched the branches of the tree.
     'Harder, harder, oh Maman, harder !'
     But Hélène was right up in the sky. The trees were bending and cracking as though beneath gusts of wind. All you could see were her skirts whirling round, making a noise as though in a storm. When she came down, her arms spread out, breast thrust forward, she lowered her head a little, paused for a second; then she was sent aloft and came down again, head thrown back, fleeing and swooning, her eyelids closed. This vertiginous lifting and dropping delighted her. Up there she was going to meet the sun, the white February sun, pouring down like gold dust. Her chestnut hair shone with amber lights; and you would have thought she was quite aflame      
       Beyond the main, simple storyline, Zola manages quite a bit more in A Love Story. It is a surprisingly good novel about childhood, focused less on childish perspective than on adults dealing with children -- including dealing with their mood swings and misbehavior, and where to take them along (or not). Jeanne is an extreme case, terribly needy, but there's also the Deberles' son, Lucien, several years younger than Jeanne, with Zola capturing his fussy moods and playing -- including with Jeanne -- very well. There also Juliette's younger sister, the delightful Pauline: "who, in spite of her being eighteen and having womanly curves, loved to romp around with very small children"; even in her minor role, she's among the most endearing of the novel's characters (in a novel in which almost all the characters manage to be sympathetic -- quite a feat itself).
       A childishness, and childish innocence extends to others, too: Rambaud is described as having eyes: "naive and gentle as a child's", while at her freest we find: "Hélène was becoming a child herself again and she let her defences drop". So also one of the novel's grander episodes -- perhaps its most famous -- is a children's party Juliette arranges, with the children coming in (adult) costume (yet remaining very much children).
       Other characters are successful too, and well used. Mother Fétu is a bit creepy, a slightly off note -- though otherwise useful in the story --, while the fop whom Juliette almost has an affair with, the opinionated Malignon (who shows up complete with monocle on one occasion ("'as chic as anything', as Pauline kept saying")), is very good fun. And among Malignon's strong opinion is one reflecting on Zola's own famous naturalism, as a play is discussed, and one actress' performance:
     'What do you mean !... She was marvellous. When she clutched at her dress and threw back her head ...'
     'Oh, don't ! Such realism is disgusting.'
     A discussion ensued. There were many kinds of realism. But the young man would have none of them.
     'None whatsoever, do you understand ?' he said, raising his voice. 'None ! Art is degraded by realism.'
       It's the main thrust of the story, Henri and Hélène's passion, that Zola is least successful with, which stands out all the more as not entirely adequate given how well he does almost everything else. Hélène's confusion is too often overheated -- understandably also because of the concern about her daughter, a demanding handful even when she isn't bedridden -- while Zola's strength is in the more calm, or calm-seeming scenes and interactions. Jeanne is also quite a bit of work, and her convenient ill-health sometimes pulls the novel more to echoes of the melodramatic work otherwise so popular in that age, but of course it is effective here for the high drama it allows Zola to indulge in. Still, the greatness of the novel is found elsewhere, from the scenes and seeing of Paris -- the ultimate backdrop, throughout the novel, which is also one of the great (almost-)Paris-less Paris novels -- to small details, such as when Hélène picks up Ivanhoe (and: "let the book drop once more, her heart so full, she could not carry on"). As Zola beautifully slips in: "How these novels lied !"
       If the main story overall is perhaps on the overheated weaker side, A Love Story still impresses greatly throughout, a master novelist at work, pulling off some exceptional scenes and character-portraits.

       (Note also that Brian Nelson's useful Introduction is prefaced by the warning: "Readers who do not wish to learn details of the plot will prefer to read the Introduction as an Afterword", which readers may indeed want to heed.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 September 2019

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A Love Story: Reviews (* review of an earlier translation): Émile Zola: Other books by Émile Zola under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Émile Zola lived 1840 to 1902.

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© 2019-2023 the complete review

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