The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

The Ladies' Paradise The Ladies’ Paradise is only the second book I’ve read by Zola; my first was Thérèse Raquin and the two are very, very different. Au Bonheur des Dames, to give it its French title, was published in 1883 and is the story of a Paris department store, based on the real-life Le Bon Marché.

At the beginning of the novel, Denise Baudu arrives in Paris with her two younger brothers, hoping to find work in her uncle’s draper’s shop. She is disappointed to discover that he is unable to offer her a job because his shop, along with the other small shops in the street, is losing business to a new department store, the Ladies’ Paradise. The new store is able to offer a larger selection of products at cheaper prices all under one roof, and none of the smaller traders can hope to compete. Still, Denise desperately needs to earn money to support her brothers so although she understands how her uncle feels, she is pleased when she is offered a job at the Paradise.

Denise quickly finds that life as a salesgirl at the Paradise is not easy but she’s determined to succeed and overcome whatever obstacles are put in her way. And when she catches the eye of the owner of the Paradise, Octave Mouret, he soon discovers that she is a woman with morals and principles; it’s obvious that she is not going to give him any encouragement – but this only makes him want her more.

I was hoping to love this book as much as Thérèse Raquin but that didn’t happen. The Ladies’ Paradise is a book that I enjoyed, but not one that I loved. It offers some fascinating insights into both Parisian life and the rise of the department store in the late 19th century – and of course, the idea of a larger, cheaper store putting all the small, independent shops out of business is still very relevant today – but I disliked most of the characters and while the long descriptions of the silks, satins and other fabrics sold at the Paradise were beautifully detailed I did get a bit bored after a while. Maybe I just don’t like shopping enough!

However, I did find it fascinating to read about the way the Paradise was run and what it was like to work there. In some ways working at the Paradise was a very different experience from working in retail today, one of the biggest differences being that the salesgirls employed by the Paradise lived and ate on the premises and were treated almost like servants. But from a selling and marketing perspective, I was surprised to learn how modern and sophisticated Mouret’s methods were; a lot of the ideas he had for running the store, advertising its products and attracting customers are still used today (though I didn’t really like the implication that women are so easy to trick and tempt into parting with their money).

The only character I really liked was Denise. I had sympathy with all the ordeals she faced after starting her new job: having trouble fitting in with the other women, feeling that her clothes and hair weren’t right, being bullied by other employees, and worrying about making enough money to take care of her two younger brothers. I found it harder to like or care about any of the other characters (Denise’s brother, Jean, particularly annoyed me – surely he was old enough to take more responsibility for himself and his actions), though I did admire what Mouret had achieved in making the Paradise such a success.

I don’t want to sound too negative about this book because I still found a lot of things to enjoy about it, but I’m hoping the next Zola novel I read will be more to my taste than this one. Any suggestions are welcome!

Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola

Thérèse is a young woman trapped in an unhappy marriage to her sickly cousin, Camille Raquin. On the surface she appears quiet and passive, never voicing an opinion of her own. But underneath Thérèse is a passionate person who longs to break away from her boring, oppressive existence. When Camille introduces her to an old friend, Laurent, the two begin an affair. Desperate to find a way in which they can be together, Thérèse and Laurent are driven to commit a terrible crime – a crime that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

If you think I’ve given too much away then I can tell you that this crime takes place quite early in the story and is not the climax of the book. The point of the story is what happens afterwards when Zola begins to explore the psychological effects this action has on the characters.

Thérèse Raquin, as you will have guessed, is a very dark book which becomes increasingly feverish and claustrophobic with scenes of violence and cruelty. I haven’t read much 19th century French literature, apart from a few books by Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, and one thing that struck me about Zola’s writing was how much more daring and graphic this book is than British novels from the same period. The reader becomes locked inside the tormented minds of Thérèse and Laurent, sharing their fear and terror, their nightmares and sleepless nights, their inability to enjoy being together because the horror of what they have done stands between them. If you’ve read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, there are some similarities here.

This book could be enjoyed just for the dramatic plot (it’s as tense and gripping as any modern thriller) but I also thought the four main characters – Thérèse, Laurent, Camille and Madame Raquin – were fascinating and very vividly drawn. Zola apparently said that his aim was to create characters with different temperaments and see how each of them reacted to the situation they were in.

As the first book I’ve read by Zola, I wasn’t sure what I could expect from Thérèse Raquin but I thought it was excellent and I’ll certainly be reading more of his books.