Au Bonheur des Dames (for the delight of ladies) is a book that sets out from beginning to end to set up contrasts. The title is not only the title of the book, but also that of a magnificent and ever-expanding department store in Paris that through its unimaginable success and constant expansion, destroys the small family shops all around.

One of these belongs to the uncle of the heroin, Denise, who in order to support her two brothers (all three are orphans) takes up a position in the new store. Shy, modest and determined to adhere to her strict morals and dedication to her brothers, she gradually moves up the seniority ladder. Surrounded by sales assistants who are jealous of her, she is picked out by the daring entrepreneur who founded and runs the store and falls in love with her. Unlike other girls in the place, she will not yield to his advances and it is not, literally, until the very last sentence in the book, that we find out if she will marry him or not.

Denise is used as a moral contrast to the other sales girls of easy virtue, and the avaricious and hollow rich women who are unable to resist spending their husbands’ fortunes in the place. The store is also used as a contrast with the small family businesses who are forced into bankruptcy and forecasts that such stores will become the new religion as ‘churches empty and stores fill’. A premonition that would come true of course.

Full of moral tensions around the interplay of relationships – between people and things – this is a heavy work, sometimes overly packed with descriptions, but the story is superb!

Au Bonheur des Dames is translated by Robin Buss and published by Penguin Classics. It is available on Amazon.

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