Book Review – Therese Desqueyroux by Francois Mauriac

Count Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with one of the most memorable lines in literature. He wrote about all unhappy families possessing their own unique brand of misery. In Therese Desqueyroux, Francois Mauriac pushed the envelope. In the introduction, Raymond MacKenize described the author’s approach to the subject as such:

First, it is a revolt against the idea of the family, revealing it as not the nurturing center of the individual’s life but instead a claustrophobic, repressive, vindictive social unit. (Loc 176) 

Mauriac created the impression that smoking served as the sole source of joy in the protagonist’s life. She partook in this past time rather liberally throughout the book. At one point in a clever bit of foreshadowing, the author wrote, “But she shouldn’t smoke so much; she was poisoning herself.” (Loc 849) I have to acknowledge that puffing on a cigarette much more exciting than her husband Bernard’s personality. His disposition conflicted with Therese’s self-acknowledgement that, “She might die of shame, of anguish, of remorse, of exhaustion—but she would not die of boredom.” (Loc 588)

Throughout the book, Therese’s life fluctuated from the prosaic to outright gloom. Her marriage left her feeling unfulfilled. Even her pregnancy didn’t elevate her mood.  Mauriac wrote,

She had counted the months left until the birth; she would have liked to know some God she could implore that this unknown creature, all intertwined with her insides already, would never show itself. (Loc 1020)

It’s pretty bad when those were the character’s good days. Not long after:

As much as Therese suffered during that time, it was only the day after giving birth that she really ceased being able to tolerate living. (Loc 1308)

Pretty progressive material for a novel published in 1927. Unfortunately for her husband, all of these elements contributed to Therese’s decision to attempt his murder.

What drove Therese to want to kill her husband? From Mauriac’s description, I have to honestly admit I didn’t feel any empathy for him.

Bernard, the most precise of men: he classified all feelings, separating them off from each other, unaware of the complex network of passages through which they were joined together. (Loc 582)

And

But he left nothing to chance, and he took pride in his well-organized life: “Bad luck only comes to those who’ve earned it,” the somewhat too-plump young man liked to say. (Loc 647)

Mauriac went even further,

Nothing is ever truly grave for those incapable of loving, and because he was without love, Bernard had never felt more than that species of joy that comes from having eluded a great peril, the sort that a man might feel when he learns that he has been unknowingly living for years on intimate terms with a dangerous maniac. (Loc 1508)

Okay. Bernard wasn’t the type of person who could write greeting cards for a living. He didn’t come across as a bad person, per se, but I didn’t like him. Still, the question remained. What drove his wife to poison him?  

At the end of the book he directly asked Therese for a reason. Yes, you read that right. Even after surviving a poisoning attempt, he remained on speaking terms with his wife. You read that right also. The two remained married. Therese told Bernard,

“I was about to tell you, ‘I don’t know why I did it,’ but now I think perhaps I know—imagine that! It was maybe to see some disquiet, some curiosity in your eyes—some trouble, essentially. I’ve just discovered that, just this second.” (Loc 1908)

Did the guy really deserve to die for being an emotional wasteland? That’s some reason to want to take someone’s life; especially, that of one’s spouse.

My version of Therese Desqueyroux also included Mauriac’s first draft of the story. He titled it “Conscience, the Divine Instinct”. It differed significantly from the completed novel. The narrative took the form of a letter. Obviously, this limited the author to First Person Point of View. Removing the Omniscient POV gave the story a completely different dimension. I enjoyed the great opportunity to delve into another writer’s creative process.

The character descriptions served as the strongest aspect of Therese Desqueyroux.  While I found the people Mauriac wrote about reprehensible, I still wanted to read more about them. I’m also not used to seeing such a pessimistic portrayal of family life. Few authors could write a book about a topic this depressing and including such depraved characters. While doing so, he still crafted an engaging read. While perhaps not suitable for all tastes, I’d still strongly recommend this book.

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