snackywombat (v.m.)'s Reviews > The Ladies' Paradise

The Ladies' Paradise by Émile Zola
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Dec 03, 2013

really liked it
Recommended for: Classics fans
Read in June, 2007

This book is truly a classic, and the whole time I was reading it, I was reminded of those summer reading lists that I always had in high school, full of lofty tomes that looked dusty and boring but when I knuckled down into them, they would suddenly refine my lazy summer of peaches, sunshine and secret cigarettes. Brideshead Revisited, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Sister Carrie... these are the ones I remember curling up in a deck chair with, glass of lemonade in hand. Books like these give us purpose -- The Ladies' Paradise is more than a tortured love story, although it is that indeed. It's the history of industrialization and urbanization, and makes that early fetal stage of the modern economy actually fascinating. Zola is obviously obsessed with Paris, or rather the new Paris, the one growing outcrops of large department stores and rampant consumerism; spurting jobs that draw rustic country people to the city; opening the avenues of class to allow rich bourgeois store owners to ascend into the upper ranks. And then there is the Cinderella story of the main character, Denise Baudu, a homely orphan who arrives in Paris wearing a threadbare black dress and clogs (the horror!) with her younger brothers in tow and succeeds in becoming not only a respected and skilled professional but also (alas) retains her virginity and modesty. Fashion is an excessively important symbol in this novel for tons of social nuances, and the lengthy descriptions of materials and displays in the store can get tedious, but the interest created in the characters of Octave Mouret and Denise sustain the reader.
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