The main character of this book is Hélène Grandjean (née Mouret). She and her daughter Jeanne are living in the suburbs of Paris, entirely on their own, as Jeanne’s father died soon after their arrival at this place. Her only friends are two brothers, former friends of her husband, who join them for dinner every week, and that’s all. She lives entirely for her daughter, a feeble child, prone to fever and convulsions.
The story begins during one of Jeanne’s episodes, in which Hélène runs to the street in despair, looking for a doctor. Their family doctor wasn’t at home, so she wanders around and knocks at a house, looking for help. This house happened to be one of a doctor, none other that her immediate neighbor, who ends up restoring the child to health. A few days later, Hélène and Jeanne pay a visit to their neighbors, to formally thank Dr. Deberle, and they get acquainted with his wife Juliette, which soon introduces them to her circle of friends, and they all start to spend a lot of time together.
Hélène and Dr. Deberle start to develop strong feelings for each other, but they don’t act on them. Until they do and all that was well isn’t anymore. Especially Jeanne, who suffers from the old “neurosis,” seen in earlier branches of the family (as in her great grandmother, her grandfather, her uncle, her cousin Serge… Remember him from Abbé Mouret?). In her, this neurosis is manifested as the unhealthiest jealousy I have ever read about. But, honestly, considering her heredity in mental health, the poor child didn’t have a chance.
I definitely didn’t know what to expect from this book. Considering its corny title, I thought it could be more on the line of The dream, something more idyllic, but well, I was absolutely wrong. Zola never fails on delivering us tragic fates disguised as something much more light.
And even though I liked it and enjoyed the reading, of all the books in the series that I’ve read, is probably one the less impressive, a minor episode in the main line of events, a place, I think, that shares with The dream (which is, however, one of my favorites). But, even when it looks like a lot less compared to others, it’s a good novel in its own right.