Author: Emile Zola
First Published: 1886
Page Count: 438
Film/ TV Adaptation: Yes*
Rating: 3/5 Stars
Note: Book 11 of Rougon-Macquart series
A fascinating look at the birth of modern retail in the heart of old world Paris.
*Evolution of Retail *Upstairs/ Downstairs Aspect
“A woman’s opinion, however humble she may be, is always worth listening to.” Denise and her young brothers arrive in Paris hoping to make a new home with their uncle at his draper shop. However, like everyone in Paris, Denise is quickly swept up in the grandeur of the ever-expanding department store known as “The Ladies’ Paradise.” In order to pay for the upkeep of her younger brothers, she takes a job in the revolutionary store. Will she survive amongst the fierce competition between the salesmen and women, the biting gossip, the rigorous physical work, and the powerful presence of Mouret, the director of the most formidable shop in Paris?
I’d seen partial clips of one episode of “The Paradise” on PBS so I vaguely knew it was about a very influential womenswear shop and the lives of its workers. While the show, from the five seconds I’d seen, seemed more about the lives of the shop workers, the book also heavily focuses on how Mouret’s creation completely transforms shopping in Paris. That aspect was fascinating because you don’t often associate department stores with women in the stories of the past. It seemed to go against the very charm of that time when men and women would buy their wares from small, specialized businesses or boutiques. The idea of a society that is still heavily influenced by class division coming together to purchase luxury and everyday items in the same store is both comical and revolutionary. The author plays into this aspect and also illustrates how over the top fashion, consumerism, and marketing became with the industrialization of retail. But to keep the story interesting and give it more of a human perspective, Zola gives us Denise. We follow her as she struggles to stay afloat with the rest of a society who is unsure about the future of retail but also eager to embrace the novelty of this new business. Drama runs rampant amongst the small business owners who are suffering in the shadow of the new department store, the competition between the salesmen, and the upstairs/ downstairs interaction between the customers and staff.
While I was endlessly intrigued by how large and powerful “The Ladies’s Paradise” grew and how that left a lasting impact on Parisian society, there were times when I just wanted to get back to seeing what the little people, namely Denise, were up to. There are robust paragraphs meticulously detailing every item sold and every decoration of every department in the store. The descriptions serve to illustrate how garish and distinct the department store is compared to its competition. However, I didn’t feel I needed this much description near the end of the book or it could’ve been taken down a notch since we, as the reader, are already well aware of what type of store Mouret runs. I wanted to see how the stories of the workers, customers, and competition played out at this point in the book, not read more about chiffon.
There were aspects of the book that I really enjoyed but I couldn’t conjure up that same excitement for the book in its entirety. Denise’s story is sweet, and full of challenges, and drama. Her story and that of the other cast of characters were what kept me going in this book. If there had been less time spent describing the extravagant store and more on Denise’s story I probably would have enjoyed it more.
*TV Adaptation: (Starring Joanna Vanderham 2012-2013)