Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola

The Ladies’ Paradise was one of those books I meant to read, expected to love, but never quite got to for a long, long time. But now I have, and the verdict is flawed but fabulous.

Let me explain.

The story begins with twenty year-old Denise Baudu and her two young brothers arriving in Paris from the country. Denise has done her best for her brothers since their parents died, but she was struggling, and so she came to Paris to take up the offer of help and support that her uncle had offered.

I was immediately pulled in by the storytelling, and I worried that maybe that offer was the kind you make but expect never to be taken up. And indeed it was. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to help but he was struggling, his small shop losing business to the expanding department store across the street: The Ladies’ Paradise.

And that presented Denise with a problem: she had to work, but the only work available was at The Ladies’ Paradise. The establishment hated and resented by her uncle and his neighbours.

She understood their feelings, but she had to work, and she was drawn to dazzling emporium. Denise secured a job. And she stepped into The Ladies’ Paradise.

There is so much to say about The Ladies’ Paradise.

It is an almost magical emporium, a huge department store that grew from a small draper’s shop, packed full of seductive colours, fabrics, clothes, furnishing, and so much more. The descriptions are rich, detailed, and utterly captivating.

It draws in the ladies of Paris very cleverly, with carefully planned layouts, seasonal sales, attentive service, such well thought out, modern marketing. So much modernity, but behind the scenes it was rather different. For the staff it was not so very different from life in service in a big house. They lived in dormitories, ate in a canteen, had little time of their own, and had to work, work, work to secure the commission they so desperately needed and to hold on to their jobs.

Denise struggled at first, and she was easy prey for ambitious, ruthless salesgirls. But she knew she had to support her family, she held on to her principles, and, though there were many setbacks, in time she would rise through the ranks.

And Denise caught the eye of Octave Mouret: the creator, the owner of The Ladies’ Paradise. A man who knows how to seduce women, in his private life and in his wonderous emporium. But Denise is the woman who will not be seduced. And of course, that makes her all the more fascinating …

The Ladies’ Paradise held me from start to finish. With wonderful, readable storytelling. With rich descriptions, and so, so many details. And with some quite extraordinary set-pieces.

I’m afraid that the characters didn’t quite live up to all of that. The leads were a little too predictable, a little too straightforward, and the supporting cast a little too one-dimensional. And the view of human nature was a little bleak. So many thoughtless, selfish people.

But I loved watching the social changes that the department store was bringing, and I was captivated by the nicely predictable love story.

And now I am wondering which of Zola’s works to read next.

Any suggestions?