Author: Elizabeth Ross
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: June 2013
Hardcover: 336 Pages
When Maude Pichon runs away from provincial Brittany to Paris, her romantic dreams vanish as quickly as her savings. Desperate for work, she answers an unusual ad. The Durandeau Agency provides its clients with a unique service—the beauty foil. Hire a plain friend and become instantly more attractive.
Monsieur Durandeau has made a fortune from wealthy socialites, and when the Countess Dubern needs a companion for her headstrong daughter, Isabelle, Maude is deemed the perfect foil.
But Isabelle has no idea her new “friend” is the hired help, and Maude’s very existence among the aristocracy hinges on her keeping the truth a secret. Yet the more she learns about Isabelle, the more her loyalty is tested. And the longer her deception continues, the more she has to lose.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): eBook
Why did I read this book: Author Elizabeth Ross contacted us a while back about reading and reviewing Belle Epoque, and we were thrilled to be a part of her release tour for the book.
1888, Paris. It is an era of decadence, of change, and above all, of beauty. Seventeen-year-old Maude Pichon dreams of the grandeur of the city and yearns for a life of freedom and sophistication, away from the rigid confines of her small Britton village. When Maude learns that her father plans to marry her off to the village butcher – many, many years her senior – she takes the chance to change her morbid, joyless future, and runs away to Paris. Life in the city, however, is not quite as romantic and sophisticated as Maude imagined, and without money or prospects, she is desperate for employment.
By chance, Maude stumbles across a half-torn ad in the daily paper, promising steady work for young women – ugly young women. The Durandeau Agency is seeking the plain, the homely, and the hideous for hire; les repoussoirs, as these women are called, are hired out by rich Parisians to serve as foils. Monseuir Durandeau’s theory of comparisons is simple: the repoussoir is the thin foil setting placed under a jewel to make it shine brighter, the ugly stepsister whose unfortunate appearance will makes her client appear a beautiful Cinderella in comparison. Durandeau takes a single look at Maude – thin, desperate, and plain as flour – and immediately offers her a position as a repoussoir for a powerful client, the Countess Dubern, who seeks a “companion” for her teenage daughter, Isabelle. Though Maude initially resists, horrified by the agency’s business, she eventually accepts the job and its promise of steady pay – and soon, she finds herself caught up in the glamour and machinations of the Countess and the Paris elite.
Complicating matters is the fact that Isabelle has no idea that Maude isn’t a distant relation, or that Maude has been hired by the Countess to spy on and manipulate Isabelle into a suitable marriage. The closer that Maude becomes to the passionate, intelligent Isabelle, however, the harder it is to keep her true identity a secret. With Isabelle’s happiness and Maude’s future on the line, Maude must make a decision – to tell the truth and expose all, or to continue her charade of deceit to protect her own interests.
Inspired by a short story by Émile Zola titled Les Repoussoirs, Elizabeth Ross’s debut novel Belle Epoque takes and expands upon Zola’s premise of “ugly” girls hired by the aristocracy to appear more beautiful by comparison. Ross’s novel actually is set some 30 years later than the publication Zola’s original story, with 1888-9 Paris as the backdrop for Maude’s story. Ross’s is a period of decadence and elegance, but also showcasing a Paris of contradictions, ripe for the social and technological changes of the twentieth century. This is a perfect setting for the novel, capturing the tension between the ways of the old aristocracy and the rising thrust for innovation amongst the bourgeoisie. In that spirit, Elizabeth Ross very cleverly frames Maude’s story by the erection of Gustave Eiffel’s wildly controversial tower – a feat of mathematical and engineering genius, but also seen as a blight on the Parisian skyline and metal monstrosity. The Eiffel Tower’s construction is a perfect, truthful metaphor, bookending Maude’s own character arc and capturing the conflict at the core of Belle Epoque – that is, the nature of “beauty.” I love the discussion and interpretation of beauty in this book, as both a measure of comparisons, but also as a function of so many other unpredictable factors (e.g. the eye of the beholder, the personality of the subject). In the case of Eiffel’s tower, this difference of perspective explains how the structure is simultaneously a steel monster to some, but an elegant, proud proclamation of industrial progress and innovation to others. In the case of Maude, she may be seen as plain and utterly forgettable in the eyes of the aristocracy, but beautiful in her passion and bravery, in the eyes of others.
That’s not to say that Maude becomes “beautiful” or has some external makeover or any such nonsense. This is not an ugly duckling story, in which the heroine magically transforms her appearance to fit the universal mold of “beauty.” No, this is a story that encourages the reader to understand that there is no empirical scale of beauty; that those standards in Paris of the past and even modern day are arbitrary, ever-changing, and even ridiculous. Maude’s transformation is one of self-confidence and self-understanding. She does not become a society belle and marry a rich noble; instead she finds her own freedom and beauty in expression of truth through her art. This realization and growth, narrated in Maude’s achingly honest voice, is the magic of Belle Epoque, in my opinion. (Well, this, and Elizabeth Ross’s eye for historical detail and skill at bringing this iteration of Paris to full, vibrant life!)
Beyond writing and a strong central theme, Belle Epoque also soars with the relationships between its many female characters – namely, the friendship between two very different girls from different worlds, and camaraderie among Maude and her fellow repoussoirs at Durandeau’s horrible Agency. I love the initial distrust between Maude and unsuspecting charge, Isabelle, and how the pair gradually learn to trust and care for another. I adored Isabelle Dubern, her resistance to her mother’s machinations, and her passionate dedication to her dream of studying science at Sorbonne – so much so that she prepares in private, unbeknownst to any save Isabelle, for the entrance exams. At the Agency, the standout character is Marie-Joseé, confident, gregarious, and unerringly kind to her fellow repoussoirs.
There’s little not to like about Belle Epoque – and my complaints are largely stylistic (therefore personal, and probably won’t apply to everyone). I was not a fan of some indulgent writing choices (namely with the tendency to end chapters with dramatic statements/observations), and I’m also not enamored of the overall narrative choice (first person present tense, which always feels strange and artificial, in my opinion). Of course, your mileage may vary.
Ultimately, I loved Belle Epoque (stylistic niggles and all) and cannot wait to read more from the very talented Elizabeth Ross. Absolutely recommended, and in the running for one of my notable reads of the year.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
“Perfect, just perfect,” says the stout man.
He scrutinizes me, his suit pinching across his rotund torso, and I assume that this is Monsieur Durandeau, but he doesn’t introduce himself. Instead he walks around me in a circle as I stand still and awkward in the middle of the sitting room. A faint perfume lingers in the air.
Perfect: no one has ever described me like that before.
I glance down at my grubby hem ad scuffed boots. What I see is a stray, a runaway – just another waif on the streets of Paris.
A younger man, tall and handsome, with a square jaw and waves of brown hair, pops his head around the door.
“Laurent, come in.” Durandeau beckons him over and nods toward me. “What do you think?”
The young man approaches and looks at me like he’s sizing up a prize heifer. This is supposed to be an interview, but neither of them is asking me questions – am I a hard worker, can I cook or sew? They haven’t even asked my name. I think back to the job notice, now crumpled in my pocket.
YOUNG WOMEN WANTED FOR
APPLY IN PERSON TO THE
27 AVENUE DE L’OPERA, PARIS.
Rating: 7 – Very Good, leaning towards an 8
Reading Next: Sidekicked by John David Anderson
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Linda WAugust 5, 2013 at 9:58 am
I absolutely love the premise!!! This book is going on my wish list!
Amanda @ Late Nights with Good BooksAugust 6, 2013 at 9:12 pm
The more I hear about this book, the more interested I am in reading it. It really does sound like a clever examination of beauty and societal standards. I may just have to read Zola’s short story first, though, to better understand how it influenced Ross’ work. Lovely and insightful review, as always!