Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola

by Emile Zola
Oxford World Classics, 2008
(originally published 1883)
translated by Brian Nelson
432 pages

Novel, social commentary, business manual... however you classify The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola, this 125 year old classic possesses a surprisingly contemporary feel as it chronicles the rise of the modern department store in Paris.

The novels opens with Denise, a recently orphaned shopgirl from the country, arriving in Paris with two younger brothers in tow hoping for assistance from her Uncle Baudu. Baudu, owner of a small family-run business, operates his shop literally in the shadow of The Ladies' Paradise and balances precariously on the brink of failure. He is full of anger and resentment toward the store and it's owner Octave Mouret, "master of the terrible machine".
In the old days, when trade was trade, drapery meant materials and nothing else. Nowadays their only aim is to expand their business at the expense of their neighbours and to eat everything up. (page 24)
Denise, however, is "bewildered and attracted" by the giant shop, while feeling an "instinctive repugnance for [her uncle's] icy little place where the old-fashioned methods of business still prevailed." Since her uncle cannot offer her a position, she secures employment at The Ladies' Paradise.

Mouret employs surprisingly modern and sophisticated marketing techniques to build his "machine" (huge sales, dazzling displays, publicity and marketing gimmicks, a return policy) in an attempt to attract the women of Paris.
Of supreme importance... was the exploitation of Woman... It was Woman the shops were competing for so fiercely... They had awoken new desires in her weak flesh; they were an immense temptation to which she inevitably yielded... And if, in the shops, Woman was queen, ... she reigned there as an amorous queen whose subjects trade on her, and who pays for every whim with a drop of her own blood.... and, behind her back, when he [Mouret] had emptied her purse and wrecked her nerves, he was full of the secret scorn of a man to whom a mistress has just been stupid enough to yield. (page 76-77)
Zola is a master of description. There are many gorgeous, almost sensual, passages detailing the wares at The Ladies' Paradise.
In the middle of the department an exhibition of summer silks was illuminating the hall with the brilliancy of dawn, like the rising of a start amidst the most delicate shades of daylight - pale pink, soft yellow, clear blue, a shimmering scarf of all the colours of the rainbow. There were foulards as fine as a cloud, surahs lighter than the down blown from trees, satiny Peking fabrics as soft as the skin of a Chinese virgin... (page 252)
As the department store grows, small businesses suffer and die. Zola skillfully portrays their struggle through the Baudus. Simultaneously, thousands gain employment at The Ladies' Paradise. The store provides housing, meals, and social activities for its employees, thus promoting the formation of a "vague" new social class.
From their daily contact with rich customers, nearly all the salesgirls had acquired airs and graces, and had ended up by forming a vague class floating between the working and middle classes; and often, beneath their dress sense, beneath the manners and phrases they had learned, there was nothing but a false superficial education, picked up from reading cheap newspapers, from tirades in the theatre, and from all the latest follies from the Paris streets. (page 155)
Underneath the social commentary and marketing strategies, intriguing story lines can also be found - competition and gossip among the salespeople, the decline of the Baudus and other small shopkeepers, love affairs, Denise's struggle to provide for her brothers and advance her career, and, most importantly, Mouret's growing fascination with Denise.

The Ladies' Paradise is a fabulous book and will likely be among my favorites this year. Therese Raquin was a favorite last year, and Emile Zola has earned a spot on my "favorite authors" list.

This review is part of The Classics Circuit: Paris in the Spring Emile Zola Tour. The entire schedule can be found here. Visit the Classics Circuit website for information on upcoming tours and links to previous stops.

26 comments:

  1. I had never heard of The Ladies' Paradise till now, but it seems like a book I'll enjoy :)

    That quotes describing the silk at The Ladies' Paradise is indeed beautifully written!

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  2. I'm so glad to hear this is good! I wasn't sure about this one, because it's all about shopping (in general, of course), but I'm getting the impression that Zola can do no wrong.

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  3. Social history and fiction in a primary source material? I love it! Never read Zola but this seems like a good place to start.

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  4. You are right, this sounds surprisingly modern! Which is amazing all by itself. The idea of aggressive marketing, extra benefits for employees, and making work its own social community is not a new concept I guess!

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  5. This is why I love the Classics Circuit: Zola is now on my "must read" list!

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  6. This sounds like a fascinating read. I don't know what I haven't read Zola before considering I used to pin some of his quotes on my bulletin board when I was younger. I will definitely be adding this to my tbr list.

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  8. Great review. I'm learning so much about Zola from this tour -- I know I'll be reading more of his work.

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  9. Never heard of this one until today, but it certainly made an impression on you!! Sounds pretty interesting to me actually...may have to think about adding this to my TBR list! Thanks for the lovely review on this one!

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  10. This does sound modern ("the devil wears Mouret") and intriguing. Someday I will read Zola. Someday...

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  11. Kals - There were many gorgeous passages describing the beautiful fabrics or displays.... such fun to read.

    Amanda - I'm starting to think that, too! I'm in NYC today and plan to go to The Strand...will see what other Zola titles they have.

    E.L. Fay - I love fiction as social history... starting to think Zola is the master!

    Sandy - I kept marveling at the contemporary feel all through this novel... still can't believe it was written in the 1800's!

    Nymeth - I don't think you'll be disappointed with Zola! Therese Raquin is a good place to start.

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  12. I'm so glad you enjoy Zola so much! I have to give him another chance. I did find in my book (The MASTERPIECE) that there was far too much social commentary for my tastes. I wonder if it's just me...(i.e., Zola is just not a favorite for me)

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  13. Rebecca Reid - It's been fun to see the varied reactions to Zola. I really enjoy his style, but can see why it wouldn't appeal to others. The Masterpiece doesn't interest me... plan to try Nana or Germinal next.

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  14. Great review! Thanks for bringing this classic to my attention. I really enjoyed Therese Raquin, and years ago loved Nana, but have not read a lot of Zola's books.

    I should have participated in this April event.

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  15. Rose City Reader - I'd never even heard of Zola until just a few years ago, and now he's becoming a favorite. Can't decide if Nana or Germinal will be next...

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  16. Great review. I'm wondering whether to try this one next or Therese Raquin. I think Germinal might be a bit grim.

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  17. Cat - Theresa Raquin was excellent and I would recommend you read that next... then if you still want more Zola, continue with The Ladies' Paradise. Thanks for visiting!

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  18. Hmm, I've never had much interest in Zola, but this one does sound kinda interesting.

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  19. Softdrink - Go ahead... give Zola a try!

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  20. Great review! I've been meaning to read The Ladies' Paradise, I already have a copy of it, but haven't started yet. Watching shopping develop in 19th century Paris intrigues me and also makes me wonder if it will be a teensy bit boring... Also Zola tends to be rather ruthless at times! (I'm reviewing The Kill by him tomorrow, which is full of sensual and yet disturbing things.) Glad I found your blog through Zola!

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  21. I'm so glad to read a Zola review about a "happier" or at least more positive book. Some of his works, as I'm reading the Classics Tour reviews, are also realistic but sad to the point of shocking if that makes any sense. I'm reviewing "Lourdes" on April 25. Stop by and see what I mean. Thanks for a terrific review.

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  22. Afewofmyfavoritebooks - If you've already got a copy, definitely give it a try. I can honestly say I never found the book boring. You're right in saying Zola can be ruthless - I'll be sure to visit your review of The Kill. Thanks for commenting!

    Carol Fleserieu-Miller - This definitely wasn't as brutal in its realism as Therese Raquin, or as I imagine Germinal is after reading a few reviews. Still, it was a fascinating book. I'm not at all familiar with 'Lourdes" and look forward to stopping by on the 25th!

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  23. I just posted on Nana for the classics circuit-I really enjoyed the book and found it wonderfully visual and very effective in bring the night world of Paris to life for me-I enjoyed reading your excellent review a lot and will consider Ladies Paradise along with Germinal for my second Zola read.

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  24. Mel U - Just read your review of Nana, and I think that will probably be my next Zola novel. He has quite a talent for bringing his subjects to life - It felt like I was a part of The Ladies' Paradise, too!

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  25. Your review has me adding this to my tbr. I will admit I had vaguely heard of of Emile Zola bu knew none of her works.
    This sounds like a great story with those extra little things that bring this time period to life.
    thanks JoAnn :)

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  26. Jenny Girl - I first heard of Zola in an on-line book club I belong to, but it took me a couple more years to read one of the books. Now I'm starting to consider him a favorite. Hope you get to sample his writing soon!

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. These conversations are my favorite part of blogging. Please check back, I almost always respond to comments!

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