This is novel #11 in the Rougon-Macquart series and was the 6th one in the series I had read so far (all selected at random). It so happened that all six are set in Paris. The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) is one where Zola is unwontedly light-handed with his prescription of human misery.
This novel tells how a country girl Denise tries to settle in the glamorous city of Paris and courageously confronts all the mishaps and humiliation that her job as a junior saleswoman in a prestigious department store entails. She witnesses how the innovative business model allows the establishment to grow from strength to strength under the management of the shrewd and handsome owner Octave Mouret, who is a young widower and womanizer. Her strong common sense, integrity and strength of will become her only tools of self defense in the material world filled with degrading temptations, to which most of her co-workers succumb. The worst trial comes when she realizes she has fallen in love with Mouret who, tired of his own dissolute private life, is deeply attracted to her.
As the backdrop of the story, Zola paints a living picture of how the business of a luxury department store is run on a daily basis in mid-1800s Paris and how a rapacious expansion plan is carried out in tandem with the city’s ambitious massive infrastructure development. Beneath all the glamour though, there is a strong undertow that grieves the inevitable demise of small business shops and afflictions of their owners. The story also gives a realist’s glimpse into the lives of the average salesman and saleswoman employed in high-class department stores.
This novel is said to have been inspired by the development of Les Grands Magasins du Louvre in the Place du Palais-Royal of that era.
As with other novels in the R-M series I’ve read, Zola shows the same mastery in this one with his descriptions of minutiae. What I liked even better though, was still his keen insight into the human psyche and interpersonal relationships, and how he captures the social paradigm shift of the times. I feel that at heart he was very much a democratic socialist.
I’m giving this novel 4.5 stars, rounded up.
Other R-M novels I had read:-
L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece) – 4 stars
Le Ventre (The Belly of Paris) – 4 stars
L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop) – 5 stars
La Curee (The Kill) – 5 stars
Nana (Nana) – 4 stars
Non-R-M novel I had read:-
Therese Raquin – 3 stars