144 of 154 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 2006
THE LADIES' PARADISE is a sequel to POT LUCK (POT-BUILLE), which I read last year. Both have Octave Mouret as a central character. In the earlier novel, he was a young salesman on the make, both in his profession and with the young women in his apartment building. At the end of POT LUCK, he marries the owner of a successful drapery establishment. At the start of PARADISE, his wife has died; and Octave has entered on an expansion program from drapery into a department store named the Ladies' Paradise that threatens all the other shopkeepers selling clothing and accessories in the area.
Enter Denise Baudu, a country girl from Normandy, who moves to Paris with her two brothers after one of them has gotten in trouble back home. Her uncle runs a store called Au Vieil Elbeuf, selling drapery and flannels, but is unable to give her room or a job because business is threatened by the presence of the Ladies' Paradise across the street. Denise finds a job at the Paradise at the risk of angering her relatives.
Salesgirls at the Paradise live in a dormitory on the top floor of the department store. Room and board is part of the job, plus a token wage and commissions on sales over quota. Little does Denise know she had entered into a whirlwind of gossip and backbiting. She is made fun of by her fellow workers, but Mouret resists getting rid of her because he is drawn to her. At one point, however, two of Mouret's "spies" in management come upon Denise and a young salesman from her region who has sheepishly fallen in love with her and kisses her hand as head axe-wielder Bourdoncle watches. Denise is promptly dismissed.
As Denise finds another position in a less profitable store than the Paradise, the focus turns more to Mouret, who did not know of her dismissal. Mouret plans a large-scale expansion of the store and calls upon Baron Hartman (in real life, Baron Haussmann) to allow him frontage on the new boulevard being cut through the neighborhood.
One day, Mouret runs into Denise on the street and asks her to consider returning to the Paradise, which is just as well as the store where Denise had started to work was going under. To sweeten the offer, Mouret makes her an assistant buyer in the new children's wear department. With her enhanced status, Denise is now winning admiration from her co-workers, though some backbiters remain. In the meantime, Mouret's passion for her is growing -- despite Denise not encouraging it in any way.
There are several set pieces in the novel which are a feature of Zola's fiction. They come under the heading of giant mechanisms that grind people down. In GERMINAL, it was a coal mine; in POT LUCK, an apartment building; in HUMAN BEAST, railroads; and in THE BELLY OF PARIS, the food market at Les Halles. In every Zola novel, there are scenes showing off some giant mechanism at work crushing people under it like the wheels of a Juggernaut. In PARADISE, these scenes are highly successful sales which show a crush of frenetically spending customers and overwhelmed sales clerks as Mouret keeps "pushing the envelope" of what is possible in the apparel business. Even wealthy shoppers who came "just to look" are caught up in the frenzy and leave the store having committed themselves to buy more than what they could afford.
The owners of neighboring shops feel that the Paradise is like a hungry beast that strives to devour their businesses and put them out in the street. Which is exactly what happens. Denise's cousin Genevieve dies of consumption after her lover Colomban -- the main hope of Au Vieil Elbeuf -- runs away to chase a slutty Paradise shopgirl who is one of Mouret's cast-offs, and who doesn't even want him. Aunt Baudu follows her daughter soon after. When as the result of a series of sharp moves, Mouret buys their properties, the shopkeepers are evicted; and Uncle Baudu goes to a nursing home, completely dazed and broken.
Eventually, Denise and Mouret do hook up, but on Denise's terms. The novel ends as they announce their upcoming marriage.
I have found that the ten or so Zola novels I have read have been of a uniform high quality, such that I have difficulty recommending one over the other (though I have a particular fondness for NANA). THE LADIES' PARADISE is an excellent read and paints a fascinating picture of life in the emerging Paris department stores of the late 19th century.
67 of 71 people found the following review helpful
on February 17, 2003
Au Bonheur des Dames is only one of twenty-something novels in the Rougon-Macquart series (detailing the various stories of the various members of a large family--among them a serial killer, a girl who embroiders ceremonial garments, a financier whose wife is sleeping with his own grown son, a spinster dedicating her whole life to caring for her extended family). And, personally, my favorite one, in that it is far less naturalistic and features (spoiler) a happy ending--out of the ones I've read, the only other one that does not leave a feeling of doom and dirt is The Dream (but that one has a very sad ending, actually).
I agree that there is a deep social message in the book: Octave Mouret's grand mega-store (called, of course, Au Bonheur des Dames--Ladies' Happiness, or Paradise, in this translation) eclipsing and eventually ruining small-time clothes merchants--like Denise's own uncle. But the mystery of the book is that you, as a reader, while feeling sorry for ruined lives and businesses, cannot but admire the awesome machine that Octave had built. By the end of the book, I couldn't care less about the small-time merchants. All I wanted was for Denise to give Octave the time of day. Message, shmessage.
The story is actually very, very simple. Octave Mouret, a young widower, is a man who has everything--and every woman he can possibly desire. And not because the store he had inherited from his wife (who died in an accident at its construction site, fatefully) is making him loads of money--also because he is intelligent, handsome, suave and has the eyes "the color of the old gold". But he wants Denise, the one girl he cannot have: the boring, gray, provincial sales clerk at his huge clothing store. Why? Because she has principles and morals and won't be yet another in the succession of women who traverse his bed. Because he cannot have her, he begins to want her more and more; then, he begins to respect her, then... you get the picture.
So, the story being so simple, it is all in the descriptions--rich, beautiful descriptions of the store, the sales, the merchandize, the laces, the dresses. The story revolves around the store; the characters are fleshed out as they buy, sell, count money, steal. After every sale, Octave's managers bring him the day's profits--literally, in bags of gold. The book itself is golden, beautiful, richly written. Every time I step into Nordstrom, I think about Octave Mouret: I like to think that a handsome young man is sitting up there, gold spilling over his desk and shining in his eyes.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on April 13, 2006
The Ladies Paradise written in the nineteenth century rings true of today's consumerism. Emile Zola examines in this socialistic novel the effects of consumerism on customers and employees. The customers who are women are drawn to the items that are displayed on the tables. Octave Mouret, the storeowner, knows what women desire and sets forth to use it to bring in profits. The lace, stockings, velvet are feminine fabrics that entice women to spend money, even if they don't have it.
As a retail employee, I have dealt with customers who don't have the money to buy the items but want to get it. I am a customer who buys what is displayed because I think it is going to be an investment. I can relate to small stores like Uncle Baudu's. Businesses like his struggle to stay afloat amongst corporate expansion. They entice clients with their sales and bargains--things that I look for when I shop. Small stores can provide what the big stores don't have. One way or the other, the consumer can get some sort of balance. Working at both a community store and a corporate store, one thing that matters most to customers is service. Customers want to be treated with respect and they expect sales associate to be enthused and answer their questions; even if it is trivial.
Denise Baudu, a simple country girl, arrives in Paris to get a job at her uncle's drapery shop. To her disappointment he doesn't have a job for her because his store is losing customers to the Ladies Paradise. The mall provides goods that are cheaper than the small shops and have a selection of fabrics not only from the mother country, but imported from Asia. He suggests to his niece that she get a job there.
The store fascinates her but she does feel some betrayal towards her uncle. Her uncle's business, along with the small stores, are struggling to stay afloat. With the expansion of the mall, these stores are forced to close because they can't compete with them. Uncle Baudu's hopes of his business staying for the long haul are shattered.
Denise is at first, shy and awkward. She is the target of cruel and malicious slander from the employees including assistant buyer Madame Aurelie. Zola unfolds the lives of the sales employees. The money they make in retail isn't sufficient to support them. The women take to prostitution. Claire has three men supporting her material needs. Pauline befriends Denise and suggests that she get herself a lover to support her financially. Denise doesn't take that advice because it is not in her interest to be a prostitute. She is determined to keep herself and her family together without falling apart which makes the women envious of her.
The novel is centered around an actual person Aristide Boucicaut who founded Le Bon Marche which remains today at the center of Parisian culture. Denise is believed to be the model of his wife Marguerite. Zola puts into a social perspective that exists til this day.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on December 7, 2004
After reading the book for an art class I was suprized to find out that I actually enjoyed the book, it had quite a twist to the department store/love story. I think Zola's description of the scenes were wonderful and helped me use my inmagination better. I would reccomend this book to anyone who likes learning about Paris bourgeous life and the mechanical system of the department stores. Definitly a good read.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 12, 2013
The BBC screenplay transmogrified Zola's story into one rooted in the British class structure. "The Ladies' Paradise" is about cultural changes caused by the displacement of small individual family traders by the new department stores, with all their "tricks" to encourage buyers to spend their money. Zola's observations were based on actual department stores that were evolving in Paris in that period, and I found it interesting to see these same things in modern stores. Most of Zola's characters are more complex in relationships and behaviour and thankfully not inhibited by the rigid class structures depicted in the BBC version. Zola's denouement is quite different as well, the outcome of the BBC version being determined by its class-confined context.
The BBC "Paradise" is, as they say, based on Zola's book so you will recognise characters from the film, but the differences are great and they make the book a much more interesting read.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 11, 2013
I thought it was excessively descriptive of the shop'smerchandise to a point of boredom. I found myself skipping the long lists of fabrics. I was uncertain whether Zola was admiring or condemning of the temptations for consumerism. The television series is loosely based on Zola's novel. It is difficult to understand Denise falling in love with her ghastly employer and the "happy ending"was brought about with a rush.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 10, 1999
The rise of department store culture in late 19th century Paris is the subject of this wonderful novel. It's quintessential Zola, in that the book is a top-notch combination of realistic writing and soap opera. Like other classics by Zola - "L'Assomoir," "Germinal" - "The Ladies Paradise" uses a somewhat overheated storyline to comment on social change and how a rapacious capitalism changed the lives of everyone it touched. The novel is especially poignant in its depiction of small, family-owned businesses which are eventually destroyed by the kind of modern marketing techniques that created the department store. A real page-turner, "The Ladies Paradise" works as both exceptional trash novel and social critique. Zola is a real genius and this, one of his more obscure works, is also one of his best.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on August 18, 1999
This book is particularly interesting for the American reader because it shows that the "modern" mind manipulation techniques used in advertising today were well honed and in operation long before Vance Packard wrote "The Hidden Persuaders" or Madison Avenue was ever heard of. They are all here: loss leaders, careful product placement to prompt "impulse" buying of unnecessary items and all based on the flightiness of female nature learnt by the store owner in the previous volume "Pot-Bouille". And to round it all off, we have the classic message "money can't buy me love", though the ending hints that the male and female lead may yet "come together" in the future. After reading this, and indeed any Zola novel, two thoughts remain: "it's all been done before" and "there's nothing new under the sun". Readers gain an insight into the social forces that led to so many people supporting trade unions and "left wing socialist" political views. The book is contemporary to the First International and Marx's "Das Kapital". It's not Zola's best work, but you do realise why Warner Bros thought him worthy of a biopic in 1937.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2013
I had never read a Zola book and found it extremely interesting. Different from the BBC series, it has more depth, inasmuch as the characters and the plot are both more intricate and deep. The relationship among the characters is also more intriguing. There is the natural backstabbing, which you find in almost every workplace, and envy, but also friendship and love. Denise's plight in the beginning of the book is touching -- I can't imagine what working with her ruined shoes would be like. Also, Denise does not have these "ideas" she has in the series. She is just a shop girl who falls in love with her boss. Some readers complained about the excessive describing used by Zola, but this is a characteristic of the age, and it also helps you realize the grandeur of the department store, whereas in the series it seems it is so small.
José Eduardo's wife
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2013
The Ladies Paradise opened a window on life as it was lived in the 19th Century. While that may sound dull and boring, it is anything but. While it cleverly reveals 19th century life you cannot help but be engrossed in the unfolding storyline until the end.
The industrial revolution turns life upside down, showing the inevitable march of progress that seemed to trample on the old way of life and draw the central characters into the new order.
I loved it. One is left pondering the oft used phrase "in the good old days". I don't think there is any such thing as "good" old days but it makes for a great read.