The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile 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. Paris in July inspired me to read it this month, and now that I have I am inclined to say that 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?

9 responses

  1. I’ve never read any Zola and was thinking this sounds so good that maybe I should and then I read your paragraph about the characters and that has put me off – reading a bleak view of human nature and thoughtless selfish people just doesn’t inspire me!

    • Please don’t let me put you off reading this one Margaret. I know many people have loved it, and I found a lot to love. The characters were maybe secondary to the plot, or they might have reflected the author’s feelings about the particular world in this book.

  2. I’ve recently read my first Zola book, Therese Raquin, which I loved and I definitely want to read more of his work soon. This is one I haven’t heard much about so it’s good to hear that you enjoyed it, though it’s a shame the characters let it down.

  3. I just ordered this after finishing Germinal, which is amazing, but quite bleak, as it’s set in a coal mining village. Not many sparkly shiny things there. If you want something totally different in setting yet very intense, that’s perfect. If you want a Zola that’s a tiny bit lighter, I’d recommend The Belly of Paris, which has amazing descriptions of food and life in Les Halles. I’m looking forward to more Zola myself!

  4. The more I hear about Zola the more I am drawn to his works. This one sounds really fascinating with all the rich details about The Ladies’ Paradise – what a great name for a department store!

  5. I loved ‘Nana’. I read a lot of his novels in my teens (a long time ago) and this is making me want to revisit. Not heard of ‘The Belly of Paris’ (or ‘Ladies’ Paradise’) – think I was just reading the longer novels, but they do sound good. I seem to remember I thought Zola was like a French Thomas Hardy on account of the descriptive language. Germinal was very popular in my reading group. Seem to remember an equally depressing one called ‘The Earth’.

  6. The only book I’ve read of Zola’s thus far is Therese Raquin, which has similarly predictable characters, but I’ve heard that that was sort of the intention, as he intended for his books to be read as set characters’ reactions in extraordinary/extreme situations. Still interesting to read, but not full of character complexity.

  7. Despite the predictability of the characters, I loved The Ladies’ Paradise. Therese Raquin was wonderful, too. I plan to start The Belly of Paris in a few days…. Zola is becoming a favorite!

  8. I’m more of a Balzac fan but I loved Thérèse Raquin. I didn’t read this one but I got Le ventre de Paris and Nana, only I will not have enough time this July. I wanted to read Le ventre de Paris (I’m sorry, I’m not sure about the English title).
    I liked many things that you mentioned in the review and think I would like to read this despite some flaws. Interesting what you say about the staff and that their life wasn’t much different from service in a big house.

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