Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Ladies' Paradise

The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola. 1883/2012. Oxford University Press. 438 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Denise had come on foot from the Gare Saint-Lazare. She and her two brothers had arrived on a train from Cherbourg and had spent the night on the hard bench of a third-class carriage. She was holding Pepe by the hand, and Jean was walking behind her, all three exhausted from the journey, frightened, and lost in the midst of the vast city of Paris.

Premise/plot: Denise Baudu and her two brothers have come from the country to the big city believing that their uncle will make room in his heart and his home for them. That is not the case. But Denise is able to be hired on as a sales girl at the Ladies Paradise, a one-stop-shopping-palace that is bedazzling. At first she struggles enormously. The others hate her, tease her, torment her. Because of how her fellow sales girls treat her, she barely makes any commissions and doesn't receive a salary. She is working to support herself and her two brothers. And one of her brothers is selfish and greedy and a PEST. Denise's boss is Octave Mouret; he is the charismatic "genius" behind the Ladies' Paradise. His presence gets Denise a bit flustered--first from severe shyness and embarrassment, then from attraction. The attraction is mutual, though not from the start. Mouret is not used to being flustered himself. It doesn't take much chasing, much effort, on his part to get what he wants: until Denise.

My thoughts: I LOVED this one. I did. It is different from the recent BBC adaptation. It is set in Paris, not London, and the mentalities and moralities reflect that difference. That is not to say that The Ladies Paradise is a smutty, sensual read. It isn't. Anything that occurs of that nature happens off the page or behind the scenes.

Other than Denise and Mouret, there are very few characters in common. Mouret does have a wealthy love interest in the book. But she is a widow who has for years had various lovers come and go. Mouret is one of those lovers, but he's never seen as a suitor. And the idea of marriage hasn't occurred to either.

Another difference is Denise's uncle. In the adaptation, he is sweet, gentle, and stubborn bachelor. He's even given a love story of his own. In the book, he's married with a wife and daughter. He is even MORE stubborn than in the show. And he's selfish and thoughtless. He's so focused in on "saving" his business that he doesn't care about his family. His daughter has spent most of her life engaged to a storekeeper, an apprentice of her father, this of her father's doing. He keeps the two from wedding, and the guy falls madly, deeply, passionately in love with a hussy salesgirl from across the street. This does NOT end well.

Is it a romance? I would say yes. It is perhaps a slow-moving romance. But once the romance starts, it really gets started. If I'd read this as a young teen, I'm sure I would have read my copy until it was battered and falling apart.


Mouret describes himself:

'What! Do I enjoy myself! What's this nonsense you're saying? You're in a sorry state! Of course I enjoy myself, even when things go wrong, because then I'm furious at seeing them go wrong. I'm a passionate fellow; I don't take life calmly, and perhaps that's just why I'm interested in it.' (67)
Mouret's potential investor makes an observation about the Paradise:

'You sell cheaply in order to sell a lot and you sell a lot in order to sell cheaply....But you must sell, and I repeat my question: whom will you sell to? How do you hope to keep up such colossal sales? (74)
Mouret on selling:
"You can sell as much as you like when you know how to sell! There lies our success." (75) 
If he could have found a way of making the street run right through his shop, he would have done so. (236)
One of the customers:
You're right, there's no system in this shop. You lose your way, and do all sorts of silly things. (260)
Mouret on life and love:
'Of course, I've never lived so intensely...Ah! Don't laugh, old man, the moments when you seem to die of suffering are the briefest of all!' (322)

© 2018 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Joy Weese Moll 5:19 PM  

I hadn't heard of either the book or the adaptation. Paris and London both make great settings.

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