Monsieur Zola and the Ladies’ Paradise

I have a bad habit I’m constantly striving to overcome. I love to shop. Window shopping kills me: I always find at least three things I am certain I MUST HAVE NOW. I feel a little bit like Veruca Salt when I go window shopping. Which is why, as a rule, I don’t do it.

The other day, I had to buy a couple of specific things I need for an upcoming vacation, and came home with neither of them — the luggage was too expensive and there were no zippered straw beach bags to be found anywhere in the world. As some sort of consolation, I did buy a badass straw fedora with a big girly bow, a pair of earrings that look like they were made in the Hadron Collider, and a canary-yellow wristlet. I justify my purchases with the “but it was on sale” principle of self-deception.

I blame Émile Zola.

Au Bonheur des Dames is Zola’s novel about shopping, and could almost have been penned by the writer who gives us the Bridget Jones books. Modeled on Le Bon Marché department store, the plot of The Ladies’ Paradise hangs on the unlikely relationship between a shop-girl and the owner of the department store, whose primary aim in his business is to exploit women by creating desires that would not have originated without the assistance of the store’s psychologically manipulative sales techniques.

Part Cinderella story, part treatise deconstructing desire and consumption, Zola is always a good read. But if you don’t feel like reading — presumably because you’d like to get more quickly back to shopping — you can watch the BBC’s Paradise miniseries, a pretty good rendition. Don’t be afraid of Zola, though. Yes, he was dauntingly prolific and, sure, The Ladies’ Paradise was written in the 1880’s, but it’s surprisingly modern and there are no paragraph-long sentences or tricky grammatical constructions or anything else you might be terrified to encounter in 19th century capital-l literature. Easy reading, and wry.

I suggest you check it out of your local library though. If you go to a store to buy it, you may just come back with Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop and a Niccolò Ammaniti novel, like I did when I was informed that The Ladies’ Paradise wasn’t in stock at the moment.

Au bonheur, indeed. Happiness is a well-used book.

Sources to Explore

Hadron Collider

Émile Zola

Le Bon Marché



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