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Prodigious barely can encompass the volumes added to literature by Émile Zola. In this, his eleventh book that dealt with various familial and societal relationships, Zola creates captivating characters that both serve as witness to, and participants in the great changes that are occurring throughout Paris in the post 1860's world. Now familiar to many as the genesis idea for the PBS Masterpiece Classic series The Paradise, it was an interesting listen as I was able to work out the direct correlations between characters and the more composite or ‘informed by’ in the television version.
Having read excerpts in the original French several years ago, the one lasting impression from the writing of Zola is his rich and layered use of description. Long unused, to attempt this book now, either in written or spoken version would be daunting – I would understand little at first go, yet the beauty of the phrasing and descriptions do resonate, even if their meaning is lost.
The audio version is narrated by Lee Ann Howlett, to mixed effect for me I must say. While I can appreciate the effort put forth, the mispronunciation of Monsieur, Madame, Mademoiselle (often shortened to Mill for Mlle.) served to take me away from the story at each turn. There were some affectations of pitch and tone to elucidate a ‘younger’ speaker that were little more than grating, and I was pleased to see that as the story progressed the variations in the pitch of the speech lessened in impact. Howlett has a wonderful voice that was well suited to the narration of the story, and it would have been a far smoother listen for me had she not adjusted to accommodate changes in characters during conversations.
This is ultimately a story that focuses on changes, large and small, both to society, a city and to the people who inhabit it. Historically it was a tumultuous time with wars, political unrest, the advent of more industrialized options for manufacturing, and most countries were dealing with economic hardships and food scarcity that often resulted in migration from small communities into the cities to find work. Denise is no different, heading to Paris to help her uncle in his small yet struggling shop. The new thing, a full-service department store full of ‘ready-made’ goods and providing goods to entice every consumer is opening, and she soon secures a position in the ladies department. The story not only shows the growth and changes occurring in the country and the city, but inside the store and with Denise herself, as she learns to ‘polish’ her appearance, and uses her not inconsiderable sense and reasoning to rise within the hierarchy of the store. Like all young women, Denise has secrets and dreams, and we are fortunate to see her journey. Far from being a staid and boring story that only will appeal to fans of historic fiction, this story has a bit of everything: conflict, history, love, loss and even drama in varying doses as the characters from the store live their lives and serve their customers.
I received an AudioBook copy of the title via AudioBook Jukebox for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
10 of 10 people found this review helpful
How could the performance have been better?
This is an incomprehensible choice of narrator for this book. Ms. Howlett butchers the pronunciation of all the French proper names, place names, and particularly street names (which play an unusually large part in this narrative). I don't ask for perfection in pronunciation of French words in an English translation, but Howlett's pronunciation is so bad it's practically comic. Encumbered by this, she mangles the rhythm of the prose, even in English.
In addition, she reads all of the younger women characters in a voice suitable for very young children. It adds a surreal element to the narrative that was certainly not intended by the author.
Was The Ladies' Paradise worth the listening time?
I found the story quite fascinating, but a struggle to follow because of the reader.
19 of 22 people found this review helpful