Friday, July 20, 2012

Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) by Emile Zola

Not Zola’s best, but still a good read
The eleventh novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, this book picks up where the last installment left off. Octave Mouret, featured in Pot-Bouille, also has a lead role in this novel. Through a fortunate marriage to a bride who dies not long afterward, young business man Mouret is left with a thriving department store named Au Bonheur des Dames. Through a natural business sense and a flair for promotion, he builds this store into the grandest mecca for shopping in all of Paris, in fact in the entire world. Soon the store swallows up the neighboring real estate, putting his old-school competitors out of business with his new brand of commerce. A few of the established firms, however, hang on for a grueling battle with this Goliath of retail.

At this point in history, department stores were a new invention, and a few stores in Paris totally revolutionized the way the world did business. Zola captures the excitement of that time. He obviously admires the revolutionary entrepreneurs for their efficiency, ingenuity, and showmanship, but he also laments the fall of the traditional Parisian shopkeeper. As Zola often does, he sets up a conflict between the two opposing philosophies, then brilliantly defends both sides of the argument. He also studies the consumers, and explores the growing obsession with shopping that blossomed among an enlarging middle class with disposable income. The depiction of the workings of the giant enterprise are interesting, and the store is staffed by a host of vividly drawn characters. The main protagonist of the book is not Mouret, but Denise Baudu, a poor girl from the provinces who comes to Paris to work as a saleswoman. Zola is usually so good at creating realistic characters, warts-and-all, but Denise is so squeaky clean and noble that she comes across as too perfect to be true. She belongs in a melodrama, and the more the book concentrates on her, the more the story devolves into just that. Zola’s literary style, Naturalism, calls for an exhaustive accumulation of sensory details. Unfortunately, these details form long, often tedious descriptions of store displays. On the whole, this is a good book, worth reading, though not one of Zola’s masterworks. I would recommend reading Pot-Bouille (aka Pot Luck or Restless House) instead. It is a much better novel.

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