The Ladies’ Paradise, Au Bonheur des Dames

Ladies Paradise

In November my book club read Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames which Bill Gallagher’s BBC TV series The Paradise was based on. I loved this book!

It’s quite a bit different, and darker than the BBC program. Denise, the heroine, comes to Paris after her father dies with her two brothers. They’d tried to make ends meet for a year after their father died, but finally had to see they’d never stay afloat in the countryside. Besides Jean, Denise’s teenage brother was dabbling in some dangerous liaisons that were getting him into trouble. Throughout the novel Denise faces greater hardships with higher stakes since her brothers depend on her financially than Denise Lovett on TV.

When they arrive at their uncle’s home cum shop, they find out he’s been having tough times like all the little shops due to the emergence of a white marble monster that’s revolutionizing and ravaging commerce. The Paradise keeps growing and Zola depicts it as a machine that almost has a life. It’s a machine that consumes — its employees, its rivals and in some cases its customers who spend more than they can afford. The machine creates strife and desire and seems unstoppable.

Denise is intrigued by the store and there is no where else for her to work. The uncle has a wife, daughter, shop assistant, who’s engaged to his daughter, and some servants. Zola shows a lot about the toll that the price wars with The Ladies’ Paradise, much more than in the TV program. Here lives are a t stake as I’m sure they really were.

In the store, the rivalry and back stabbing is high pitched. Most of the staff sleeps around and plot to get promotions by betraying colleagues. There’s little friendship in the store. The shoppers also seem to jockey for social position, which is all the more noted and crucial based on what you buy and where you shop. Those at the top of the social stratum have their own dressmakers and feel a sting when they learn that these dressmakers now get their silk from The Paradise.

Stealing is a huge problem and even wealthier women can’t resist and get caught. Pregnant women were drawn to stealing the most. Yet there is an attraction to the lush fabrics and fashions. Zola masterfully sets up a tension between the enticing beauty of the goods and the disastrous consequences the emporium has on the other shops. The Paradise gobbles up the neighborhood as it expands. We also see how wonderful the handmade goods were, how you could buy an umbrella with a hand-carved handle that looked like a parrot or some whimsical creature.

While I’ve enjoyed the BBC series, I found Zola’s writing, which I’ve been told isn’t his best, to be absorbing and exciting. I now want to read all 20 of his novels in his series Les Rougon-Macquart which chronicles the history of the legitimate and illegitimate sides of a French family.

According to my sources (i.e. Wikipedia) Octave Mouret’s family figures into the earlier books. Yet you can pick this novel up and not feel you missed anything.

From The Writer’s Almanac

zolaIt’s the birthday of of writer Émile Zola (books by this author), born in Paris in 1840. His father was an Italian engineer, and he died when Émile was seven, leaving the family to get by on a small pension. Émile’s mother hoped he would become a lawyer, but he failed the qualifying examination, and so he took a series of clerical jobs. He also wrote literary and art reviews for newspapers.

In his early career, Zola generally followed the Romantic Movement in literature, but he later began a writing style he dubbed naturalism, for which he is best known. He defined naturalism as “nature seen through a temperament” and was inspired by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1839) to apply scientific principles of observation to the craft of fiction. Between 1871 and 1893, he wrote a 20-novel series called Les Rougon-Macquart about different members of the same fictional family during France’s Second Empire. He wrote of this project: “I want to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world.” The most famous books from the cycle are The Drunkard (1877), Nana (1880), and Germinal (1885).

He was also involved in the famous Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongfully accused of passing military secrets to Germany and imprisoned on Devil’s Island. Evidence later came out that strongly implicated another man, but the evidence was suppressed to protect the original verdict. Zola published an open letter on January 13, 1898, entitled J’Accuse…!, on the front page of Paris daily L’Aurore. In it he accused the French army of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism. He was convicted of criminal libel on February 7, but fled to England before he could be imprisoned, wearing only the clothes on his back. The following year, the government offered him a pardon, which he accepted, even though doing so implied that he was guilty. He was finally exonerated of all charges in 1906, four years after his accidental death of carbon monoxide poisoning from a stopped-up chimney.

I want to read Émile Zola’s A Lady’s Paradise.