The Ladies’ Paradise

The Ladies’ Paradise, one of my required books for history class, was my introduction to the author Émile Zola and his twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series.  Apparently, this series may be read out-of-order, and indeed, The Ladies’ Paradise works well as a standalone novel.  It is the eleventh installment and (according to Wiki) takes place in the 1860s.

Like a Dickens novel, this book encompasses the whole spectrum of society–in Paris, that is–from the wealthiest and most powerful, to the middle class, to the vulnerable and impoverished.  The Baudu siblings come to Paris to live with their uncle, only to find he has no work for them, as his drapery business is struggling to survive against the success of a giant shop across the street.  The Ladies’ Paradise, run by Octave Mouret, is on the way to destroying every small, family business in this district of Paris, due to its new business methods and philosophy (including cheap prices).  Mouret chooses daring and sometimes brutal methods, trusting that his shop’s careful advertising, huge variety of goods, and magnificent display will seduce women into spending more and more money there.  And he’s right.  Thus, he fears no one, not even the woman whom some predict will ultimately wreak revenge upon him.

This was a fast read.  Zola writes wonderfully; his style is accessible and keeps you interested.  I will definitely be reading more of his books, especially to gain more knowledge about 19th-century France.

I think the two points of this book are 1) Old vs. new, and 2) Survival.  Mouret’s store is truly a modern “machine”, with all the positive and negative connotations of the idea.  The Paradise expands beyond what was imaginable at the time.  It turns a rundown neighborhood into a clean and sophisticated area of the city.  It creates thousands of jobs for the jobless, including veterans.  It’s an excellent example of 19th-century efficiency and “keeping up with the times.”

And yet the Paradise takes away the livelihood of the small family shops, and their specialties (draper, milliner, florist, etc.) are special no more.  It breaks up family life, so that each member of a family working at the Paradise spends his/her free time wrapped up in his/her individual hobbies and vices.  And a certain amount of gambling, particularly as involves advertising, is a normal part of Mouret’s business strategy.

Rings a bell?  These pros/cons still exist today, for better or worse, with our modern-day superstores.

Interesting historical fact: the Paradise was largely based on the Bon Marche (the Parisian original, not the American Bon/Macy’s). I thought the book’s descriptions, of which there were many, were very interesting.  In a way, the Paradise is so much simpler than stores today, and in another sense, it is so much more elaborate!

I didn’t care much for the characters.  While at first it was refreshing to read about protagonists who weren’t altogether conventional, it grew old after a while.  The heroine, Denise Baudu, is a survivalist, with elements of Mary Sue that rubbed me the wrong way.  It is difficult to believe that Denise’s goodness and grace come from within herself, without any mention of a spiritual or even worldly inspiration.  Why is she who she is?  It is never told.

The other thing that bothered me was how (as I mentioned previously) a lot of the characters are obsessed with sex.  I realize that Zola was using it to a make a parallel with commercialism, but it also got old quickly.  There is a lot of focus on this, and it isn’t helped by the fact that nobody in the book seems to understand what true love is (e.g. deeper than just physical/emotional attraction).  Mouret’s character arc is particularly convenient and, therefore, really doubtful.

3 out of 5 stars, and recommended if the topic interests you.

Monstrous Societies

I haven’t purposely adhered to the current “dystopian novel” trend, yet my three latest reads have all held striking elements of it.

First is the famous Utopia, a complete contradiction to its name.  This was a really bad book, to put it simply.  The fictitious island of Utopia is a society of Mary Sues, where everyone is so good and kind and noble-hearted.  It made me sick.  Not because I don’t like nice people, but because these are phony, utterly unrealistic nice people.  Plus, they’re not as nice as they look.  They think slavery and arranged families and shared houses are ok–well, not only ok, but just splendid.  The more I read, the more I noticed another disturbing trend: elderly guys are at the top, women and children (and slaves) are at the bottom.  Gerontocracy, I think.  Religion in Utopia is a bona fide mixing of faiths where everyone worships at the same church, and if your beliefs extend beyond a “one size fits all” worship service, you have to complete your worship at home.  The tip of the iceberg was the part where the women and children must fall on their knees before their patriarch and confess their sins to him, before going to church.  (And he is always the saintly member of the family, I suppose?)  This is just a sample of Utopian joys.  By the end of the book, it really was like a bad dream.

To quote Wikipedia, there is a lot in this book that seems “to be polar opposites of More’s beliefs and the teachings of the Catholic Church of which he was a devout member.”  Some reviewers of Utopia say you must read it as a joke; I would at least label it as such, but at this point in history the humor is gone, and there is little in the book as a whole that leads me to think it isn’t serious.  It gets a generous 1 out of 5 stars.

Moving on to Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise.  This book zeros-in on a segment of Parisian society in the late 1800s, chiefly greed-driven businessmen like Octave Mouret, owner of the Ladies’ Paradise, and a number of his employees and customers whose lives are also governed by their materialism.  As if this form of self-indulgence weren’t enough, many of them are also obsessed with sex or using it to obtain quick fortunes.  Mouret is a nasty pervert.  Madame Marty also makes me furious with her addiction to spending, which forced her husband to get an extra job.  I will be so glad to get away from this group of characters (only four chapters left!).  The only character I particularly like is Monsieur Baudu, a small-business owner and the uncle of the heroine (Denise Baudu).  He’s not perfect, but he seems to recognize some fundamental values (like family life) that other people avoid.

The third lovely society I stumbled across is Edgar Allan Poe’s The City in the Sea,” read by Basil Rathbone.  Perhaps those other two books made me understand this poem, which depicts the ruin of a (apparently) corrupt city.  It is rather depressing, but the poetry is magnificent, and so is Rathbone’s recording of it.  It increases my eagerness to re-read Poe’s poetry, too.

Character Thursday: Octave Mouret

I am three chapters into The Ladies’ Paradise, by Émile Zola, and so far I love it.  Set in late-1800s Paris, it is about a clothing shop called the “Ladies’ Paradise”, which threatens to destroy all the other shops in the neighborhood with its business innovations, cheap prices, and unheard-of variety.  The shop is currently the brainchild of a man named Octave Mouret.

Usually, I prefer to talk about my favorite characters, but Mouret is so bad that he outshines all the other characters (most of whom are rather horrible as well).  This guy is an evil genius.  So brilliant, he can convert a nondescript corner of the neighborhood into a bright, clean, vibrant, mini shopping mall, creating jobs for hundreds of jobless people, including veterans.  So low, he would pretend to be a friend (and boyfriend) to women, simply to make business connections and improve his profits.  He is utterly shallow, and he encourages everyone around him to be the same.  Part of his power is rooted in his charisma, which can ensnare both women and men.  He loves no one but himself.

They all belonged to him, they were his property, and he belonged to none of them.  When he had extracted his fortune and his pleasure from them, he would throw them on the rubbish heap for those who could still make a living out of them.

As an aside, I find a lot of parallels between this book and modern-day life (particularly the discontent and greed).  I don’t know what to think of the small, old-fashioned shops vs. the new superstores, but it’s an interesting topic that still comes up today.