Au bonheur des dames, Zola’s exploration of the modern department store, is so very relevant in these early years of the 21st century, even though it was written over a century ago. Like the good naturalist novel that it is, Au bonheur studies what happens when mega-stores move in to old, settled neighborhoods and drive the small businesses there into bankruptcy. With the rise of department stores around this time, small-scale merchants with umbrella shops, say, or shops that specialized in scarves or hats, had no chance. The department stores could buy in bulk and undercut their small competitors.
Through the course of the novel, we watch as, one by one, the small shops surrounding the “Bonheur des Dames” store shrivel up and die. Of course, there’s one holdout, but he hangs on out of sheer desperation, rather than hope. Playing out against this backdrop of commercial carnage is the developing love affair between Octave Mouret, the owner of the store, and his lowly employee Denise Baudu. Ironically, Mouret, who prides himself on knowing what women want and how to get their money, finds himself ultimately conquered by a poor and powerless young woman (ahh c’est la vie).
As with most Zola novels, though, this short summary doesn’t do justice to the almost overwhelming amount of detail and information that coalesces into a rich picture of mid-19th-century Paris. Like my man Herman Melville, Zola uses a boatload of facts and in-depth descriptions to immerse us in a particular place in time; in Au bonheur, Zola treats us to detailed discussions of staff responsibilities, retail innovations, pricing and supply chains, and the almost infinite varieties of fabrics and laces and styles and textures offered to the customers. By the time you finish this novel, you feel like you’ve just been in Paris for a year. And you’ll want to go shopping.
(cross-posted at Bookishly Witty)