Friday, July 26, 2013

The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola



Slowly, but surely, I am working my way through the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels by Emile Zola.  My eighth effort was The Ladies' Paradise, the eleventh novel in the series.  Loosely based on the famous Bon Marche department store in Paris, this is the story of Denise Baudu, a poor shopgirl of twenty who has come to Paris from the provinces, hoping for a job.  Her parents have both died, and she has two younger brothers to support -- Jean, 16, who's a bit of a ne'er-do-well and already a womanizer; and little Pepe, who is only five.

After her parents passed away, Denise was promised a job by her uncle, who owns a draper's shop in Paris.  Unfortunately, by the time Denise arrives unannounced, business is very bad, mostly because of the expansion of the nearby department store complex, Au Bonheur Des Dames (aka The Ladies' Paradise) which is swallowing up nearby small businessmen, then undercutting them and putting them out of business.  (Sound familiar?)  It's owned by Octave Mouret, the playboy from the previous novel, Pot-Bouille.  He's now a widower who inherited pots of money from his late wife, and has invested all the money into the store, creating a store like no other, at which you can get absolutely everything you need.

Jean has an apprenticeship and goes off on his own (and repeatedly gets into romantic entanglements); Pepe is boarded with some neighbors, but Denise is forced out of desperation to take a job at the evil incarnate, Au Bonheur des Dames.  Her uncle is furious but what can she do?  Mouret has also gone back to his playboy ways, and has his eye on Denise, who blooms as she becomes a skilled shop worker.

Like the train in La Bete Humaine, the main character in this book is the department store itself -- it's basically a satirical look on consumerism and the rise of the very first big-box stores.  I could not help thinking of Wal-Mart as I read this, and how it has squeezed on so many independent retailers.  Zola uses the novel to satirize consumerism, greed, and the rising power of women in the retail market.   I was also struck, over and over, how history is repeating itself with big box stores like Wal-Mart, though I'm pretty sure the employees at Au Bonheur Des Dames are treated better than Wal-Mart employees!

However, the characters themselves aren't that well developed, and I found Denise in particular to be a little too good to believe, too forgiving and long-suffering.  I've seen a lot of this type in Trollope novels lately and it's beginning to get on my nerves.  I suppose it's a Victorian trope, though at least the young women in Trollope and Zola aren't nearly as bad as the ones in Dickens' novels.

The Paradise series on BBC.  
The Ladies' Paradise (#11 in the series, and the eighth I have completed) is fairly popular for a Zola novel, though nowhere near Germinal or Therese Raquin.  You'd think the subject, shopping and commercialism, would make it more popular.  I was inspired to pick this up by my recent binge-watch of Mr. Selfridge -- the entire series had been taking up space on my DVR for several months.  I've also heard that The Ladies' Paradise was adapted into a BBC series called The Paradise, and I've just discovered it will begin airing on PBS here in the States on October 6!!  The folks at BBC know how we Yanks love those British period dramas!

Anyway, it was interesting and entertaining, but not nearly as good as Germinal or La Bete Humaine, which are my favorites by Zola so far -- I'd rank it as a second-tier Zola novel, closer to The Belly of Paris or Pot-Bouille.  Still, worth reading, especially if you like shopping and fashion, or if you're in withdrawal from Mr. Selfridge.  I have a feeling I'll see more blog postings about it in the fall after the TV show starts to air.

16 comments:

  1. I have this to read - I'm hoping it stands alone OK, as the only other one I've read is Germinal and that was back in uni in the late 80s (and I can't remember ANYTHING about ANYTHING I was forced to read!). ;-)

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    1. I think it's fine as a stand-alone -- Mouret's the only character that shows up in a previous book and his past is mentioned, it isn't necessary to have read Pot-Bouille beforehand. I think all the works are distinct enough to stand on their own -- and I'm certainly not reading them in order!

      If you have time, though, Pot-Bouille is pretty funny. It's kind of a really sordid Upstairs, Downstairs, set in a French apartment building with a bunch of hypocritical bourgeois French people.

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    2. Vicki - The Ladies' Paradise definitely stands alone! I'd only read Therese Raquin prior to picking it up and had no problem. I really need to get back to Zola and this series.

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  2. This is the only Zola I own and I'm not ashamed to say I bought it because of the shopping theme! In all seriousness though, I do like a good satire so hopefully it will work for me.

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    1. It's definitely a better shopping novel than, say, The Shopaholic series. And when people see you reading it they'll be all impressed that you're reading a French novel.

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  3. I am about 1/3 of the way through the Fortune of the Rougons. You have inspired me to pick up Zola and I thought I would start at the beginning. However, I decided I would read them the suggested reading order I found on Wikipedia, rather than in order of publication. So lucky me, Pot-Bouille and Au Bonheur des Dames are 7th and 8th on the list. I will also try and check out the PBS series. I love literary adaptations when they are done well.

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    1. I'm reading them completely out of order, but I don't know how much it matters -- some of them are still not available in good English translations. Brian Nelson, a professor from Australia, has done a lot of good recent translations, so I'm hoping that eventually he'll fill in the gaps with the ones that aren't available in English. Or I'll have to take up French!

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  4. I am a bit more than half done with The Ladies Paradise. I find the accounts of the business aspects of the store fascinating and yes it does remind of Wal Mart. My favorite Zola novel of the five I have read is Nana.

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    1. I still haven't read Nana, but I've heard it's excellent. I really loved La Bete Humaine which is the story of one of her brothers, and L'Assommoir which is about her mother Gervaise. It's really good.

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  5. Reading the entire series sounds like a great idea. I wasn't as bothered as you were by the conventional 19th century morality intruding on a good story.

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    1. I think it was just because I'd also recently read two books by Trollope with these selfless, long-suffering heroines. Definitely better than Dickens' wimpy ingenues, but I still saw a pattern. I should get around to writing those reviews too!

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  6. I really enjoyed this book and am happy to learn a BBC series is coming soon... gotta love those British period dramas!

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    1. I'm a complete pushover for a British period drama! I just finally finished Mr. Selfridge and I really enjoyed it. The sets and costumes were amazing, especially those hats!

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  7. I have just finished re-reading this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. You are right about the character development though. I have worked as both a shop assistant and a stock taker and it did bring back a lot of memories.

    The TV series "The Paradise" was telecast here in Australia earlier this year and I have to confess I found it disappointing. There are a lot of differences to the book. The setting was moved to Britain (I have no problem with that), but they changed a lot of the characters. The series also ends on a cliff hanger and there going to be a second series which I probably will not watch.

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  8. I bought this almost exactly a year ago, particularly for the setting, which sounded both fun and interesting - and it's still on the TBR shelves. Funny, Trollope's women don't usually bother me, but if I keep reading Victorian women writers like Broughton & Braddon, that might change! (I agree completely about Dickens' women, though).

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  9. I plan to read Zola one day, but have yet to read any, it's always good to see someone these classics. They always sound so interesting. I just spent a month living a few hundred metres from Le Bon Marche, so that is appealing too. I don't know that The Paradise or Mr Selfridge has played in Australia yet, I'll keep an eye out for them.

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