What writers can learn from the classics

I recently finished reading The Ladies’ Paradise, written by Émile Zola, first published in 1883. To be fair, I hadn’t heard of this book before so I’m not sure how much of a cult classic it is, but I decided to give it a shot anyway.

I found it interesting, to say the least. There were a lot of issues of course, especially regarding the characters, and I will go through this in more detail in my upcoming review/discussion vlog that I’m filming today. I also had some issues with the pacing and such, but what I’d like to talk about here is that special little je ne sais quoi that this book has.

Firstly, it gives the reader an incredible insight into the inner workings of the 19th century Parisian department store. From a business perspective, it’s very interesting indeed. In a time before computers and digital currency, a business of this scale was like a clockwork of processes all depending on human diligence to function. I was very much intrigued by this.

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I always say that I don’t like it when historical fiction portrays a romanticised picture of the past – which brings me to my next point. As this is a Naturalist work of fiction, it is rather the opposite. The harsh reality of the 1800s is ever-present in this book. Most of the side characters, if not all of them, get unhappy or even tragic endings. The main character goes through some awful circumstances as well such as poverty and starvation. Never, not even once, is this portrayed as something romantic. It’s gritty and gruelling, and I absolutely love it.

Therefore, I find it difficult to say for sure what I thought about this book. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. I find that the plot and the characters are the most important elements of any good book – and in this case, it didn’t really have any of that. What it did have though was an amazing setting and some interesting prose (unless it went completely nuts, which happened quite a lot).

All in all, I would say that anyone who’s interested in learning more about the developments of business and capitalism in 1800s Paris will have a fairly nice read, whereas if you want a nice period love story, you might get disappointed. I suppose that’s where my biggest problem was; I went in expecting something entirely different than what I ended up getting.

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