Prior to this, the only Zola which I had read was a marvellous little novella entitled The Flood. I was encouraged to read The Ladies’ Paradise when I saw Astrid the Bookworm wax lyrical about it on her Youtube Channel. I searched high and low for it and finally found it on a trip to Waterstone’s Picadilly at the very end of November. I willed it to come out of my book choice jar immediately, and had to wait until the very end of December for it to do so. I began to read it the novel on New Year’s Eve, and as I finished it in January, I counted it as my first novel which was read in 2014.
I was so captivated by The Ladies’ Paradise from the outset. First published in France as Au Bonheur des Dames in 1883, the novel tells the story of the rise of department stores in Victorian-era Paris. In the insightful Oxford World’s Classics introduction, it is said that Zola was given the inspiration to write such a novel after witnessing the rise of Le Bon Marche, one of the city’s most famous department stores.
I did not realise until I had finished the novel that The Ladies’ Paradise is actually a sequel to a novel named Pot-Bouille, which features the same protagonist, Octave Mouret. The Ladies’ Paradise stood alone marvellously, and it did not matter at all that I had not read the previous novel – nor any of Zola’s other Rougon-Macquart series (this is the eleventh book), for that matter.
Brian Nelson has done a marvellous job with the novel’s translation. The extra information which has been included in the edition, too, complemented the novel beautifully. There are maps showing the location of the department store and the main settings of the novel, a select bibliography, and a chronology of Zola’s fascinating life.
The scene was set immediately, and it has left me longing to go back to Paris. Each and every scene, building and character which Zola turned his hand to describing were truly stunning – so vivid, and dripping with colour. Whilst this novel is a relatively quiet one in terms of its plot, the way in which Zola cites the foundations of such a store in Paris and how it grew to such dizzying heights has been so well imagined. The social history has clearly been so well considered. The characters which Zola uses to people his store – nicknamed The Ladies’ Paradise by all – felt so realistic, and I was particularly enchanted by his main female protagonist, Denise.
The Ladies’ Paradise is an exquisite novel, and parts of it really made me smile. It was a book which I struggled to put down, and would happily have read it until the clock chimed midnight on New Year’s Eve if we weren’t hosting a party to celebrate. I cannot wait until Monsieur Zola and I are reacquainted. I sense that there are some real gems in store to encounter.