The Ladies Paradise, by Émile Zola

26782749The Ladies Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) recounts the rise of the modern department store in late nineteenth-century Paris. The store is a symbol of capitalism, of the modern city, and of the bourgeois family: it is emblematic of changes in consumer culture and the changes in sexual attitudes and class relations taking place at the end of the century.
Octave Mouret, the store’s owner-manager, masterfully exploits the desires of his female customers. In his private life as much as in business he is the great seducer. But when he falls in love with the innocent Denise Baudu, he discovers she is the only one of the salesgirls who refuses to be commodified. (from Goodreads)

Ohhh this book… I couldn’t possibly find a physical copy of it in Buenos Aires, at least in Spanish. I ended up downloading it as epub, to read on my computer, which barely happened and put a hold in my reading of the Rougon-Macquart. At the end, I finished the reading from my phone (which at first was totally “ugh”, but then was like “this isn’t so bad”).
A couple of years ago, I was just beginning to read some of Zola’s works, without any judgement (I wasn’t even aware that they were a series), and I came around The Paradise, a BBC series allegedly based in one of Zola’s novels. I looked for it tirelessly without any result, like I just said. But, in the meantime, I kept reading the others and watching this tv show, which I enjoyed very much, at least the first season. It seemed a little too “happy” to be some of his works, but “well”, I thought, “there might be an exception”.
Some time later I began to read Pot-bouille, and started to recognize John Moray in Octave Mouret. “This might be it!”, I thought, but no, of course it wasn’t, as I realized later this was a prequel of that story. I also noted that Octave didn’t seem to be a lot like Mouray, or at least how I remembered him to be. However, I let it pass…
After reading this book I can now finally say “yeah, that tv thing was waaaay too sugar-coated”. It’s ok in its own, but as an adaptation works really bad. Or maybe I’m wrong for thinking it was supposed to be a word by word adaptation, like they sometimes do for Austen’s works… This definitely wasn’t.
Leaving all that behind, this book is fantastic. Like I think I already said before, what I love about Zola is the real research work behind his writing, and how his novels can perfectly work (in my opinion) as any other history or sociology book explaining the Second Empire. Each book tackles a different subject, and this one in particular shows us the socio-economic revolution that meant the creation of this mega-super-stores. The work conditions, the dreadful consequences for the historical artisanal and specialized stores, and the beginning of the crazy consumerism we have today.
As always, there’s a great myriad of characters to love, hate or feel sorry for (so much of the latter, actually, those poor little store owners, heartbreaking).
As usual, this was that kind of novel that I never wanted it to end. However, now that I finished it, it means that I can move forward with this project.

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