This time, Véronique, French teacher with the Alliance Française de Bath, has chosen Au bonheur des dames by Emile Zola.
The book was published in 1883 and is part of the great saga of the Rougon-Macquart which takes us through the 2nd Empire with Napoleon the 3rd and the beginnings of the 3rd Republic.
Each novel depicts the lives and customs of a specific layer of society ( usually with a strong criticism of that part of society) with one main character who is a member of the Rougon-Macquart family and who becomes the thread of the story.
Au bonheur des dames takes place in the second part of the 1860ies when Haussman had transformed Paris and the first department stores appeared.
Zola took his inspiration from two business men who created Les grands magasins du Louvre.
Au bonheur des dames is a very successfull department store, run by Octave Mouret, an ambitious and handsome man who understands women and their desires. They are queens in his store but at the same time become slaves to their desires. Zola’s descriptions of clothes and surroundings are lavish and beautiful.
The novel is built on several layers, one of them is a love story with Octave, the seductor, falling in love with Denise, one of the shop assistants, who becomes a very able business woman. The two of them get married but they are not only husband and wife, they build a strong partnership based on respect which makes their story very modern.
Here is what the publisher of Le livre de poche has to say:
Octave Mouret affole les femmes de désir. Son grand magasin parisien, Au Bonheur des Dames, est un paradis pour les sens. Les tissus s’amoncellent, éblouissants, délicats. Tout ce qu’une femme peut acheter en 1883, Octave Mouret le vend, avec des techniques révolutionnaires. Le succès est immense. Mais ce bazar est une catastrophe pour le quartier, les petits commerces meurent, les spéculations immobilières se multiplient. Et le personnel connaît une vie d’enfer. Denise échoue de Valognes dans cette fournaise, démunie mais tenace.
Zola fait de la jeune fille et de son puissant patron amoureux d’elle le symbole du modernisme et des crises qu’il suscite. Personne ne pourra plus entrer dans un grand magasin sans ressentir ce que Zola raconte avec génie : les fourmillements de la vie.
It is not too late to join the French bookclub, for more info…