In a small town outside of Paris, a nine-year-old orphan named Angelique sits outside a cathedral the night after Christmas. It’s snowing, and she has nothing on but rags. She stares up at the images carved into the cathedral’s wall, images of virgins and saints. She expects to die there that night, but is rescued in the morning by the two poor embroiderers who live near the cathedral. They take her in, shelter her, and keep her cloistered from the world, until all she knows is fairy tales and Catholic legends.
I adore Zola. He is one of my very favorite authors, and this is the sixth work by him that I’ve read. Every single book has been masterfully crafted – exquisite writing (even in translation), amazing characterization, fantastic exploration into the particular culture of each novel, and engaging storytelling. The Dream is no different. In fact, from the beginning, it had potential to rival my very favorite Zola, Germinal, because it starts (or seems to start) with a theme that is very dear to me: the contrast between reality and fantasy, and the moment when one replaces the other. This is, at least, what I expected from it.
As a kid, I was one of those people who wanted my life to be like in a fairy tale, book, or movie. I remember once, at ten years old, wanting to throw myself onto my bed and cry when I was very upset, and how disappointed I was that I couldn’t, because it would look ridiculous having to crawl up to the top bunk bed to get there first. I remember wanting to have an imaginary friend but being too self-aware to have one. I remember wishing on stars, and dreaming about first kisses, and all sorts of things. I think in a way, it’s symbolic of youth that we dream detached from reality. One day, we grow up. We reach the point of disillusionment – the negative side to a coming of age story – and this fascinates me. This is what The Dream seemed to be about from the beginning, and why I instantly loved it. I wanted to see exactly how Zola approached that moment of disillusionment.
This was not a tale of disillusionment, however. I was wrong. In The Dream, Zola weaves Catholic symbology and mythology together with the art of embroidery to spin his own fairy tale or saint story. It isn’t only Angelique’s story, though she is definitely the heart of the book. It is also the story of her adoptive parents, Hubert and Hubertine, who have spent their entire adulthood suffering under the weight of guilt, having married against Hubertine’s mother’s wishes. It is also the story of Saint Agnes, a virgin saint who ascended to Heaven to marry Jesus. Lastly, it is the story of the Monseigneur, with his troubled past and the passion for his dead wife renewed after he brings his adult son home. These stories all interlace to create something as far-fetched, fantastical, and mythical as the saints’ Legends that Angelique reads and loves so much.
I have noticed in previous books I’ve read by Zola that there is always a touch of sentiment to contrast with the ever-present realism. In Germinal, there is one touching scene at the climax amidst a nightmare background. In Thérèse Raquin, there is a moment of connection before utter destruction. These moments pop up, brief and touching and sentimental, almost incongruent with the rest of the story, more visible because of the horror with which they are contrasted. In The Dream, there isn’t one moment of sentimentality. The entire book is sentiment, and I’m not sure there was any irony to it.
The Dream surprised me. I expected a crashing, a destruction, a slow soul-crushing fall. I did not expect Zola to retain the whimsical, dream-like prose all throughout the book, until it is almost as surreal as Angelique’s fantasies. It is so different from Zola’s other books. While I understand the direction he took this book – symbolically, thematically, it makes sense – I admit I was unprepared for it. Despite my surprise and mild confusion, though, I did love the book. It was beautiful. Strange, surreal, but beautiful. It didn’t quite conquer Germinal as a favorite, but it is definitely loved. It was a great book to start off 2012.