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.