Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross
Release Date: June 11th 2013 by Delacorte Books
Genre: YA Historical fiction
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.
For me, Belle Epoque, was quite a special book. What I loved about it the most, was just how emotionally intelligent it was. This book really tries to focus on how every person should pay attention to what they feel, and not pay attention to societal tenets of how a person should be. This book has a very willful and strong heroine, Maude, and an array of really interesting supporting characters; that were for me, really well developed.
The concept behind Belle Epoque was really interesting. In the book, you had an agency that hired young women who were considered unattractive in some form or another. These ladies were called repoussoirs. A word that means repulsive in French. Their sole goal was to make other women stand out when they stood next to them. In Belle Epoque the lead character, Maude, is hired as a repoussoir and through her journey, the reader gets to see how brutal it is on a persons psyche to be constantly undermined, ignored, and compared to others.
The characterization in this book was really good. Maude is an excellent heroine. She is strong of character, willful, and intelligent. And though it is tough on her to be a repoussoir, an ugly girl for hire, she is able to figure out who she is and what she needs to do in order to grow. Isabelle, who is the daughter of a countess who hires Maude, is the opposite of Maude in social status. She is rich, and beautiful, but secretly struggling because she wants to become go to college and study, and not marry. The fellow repoussoirs of Maude were also quite well-developed, each with a distinct personality. Characters like Durandeau who ran the repoussoir agency and the Countess, were excellent villains, who had a total disregard for the feelings of others and were experts at manipulation.
The setting of this book was perfection and interesting to read about. Belle Epoque takes place in Paris, during the Belle Epoque era - late 1800s, early 1900s - where art and literature thrived in Paris. I honestly felt like Paris was a character of its own in this book because the author did a great job at recreating the era. The clothing, the artists, the cafes and famous Parisian spots that were mentioned really make the reader feel like they are in Paris, during the belle epoque era. What also adds to recreating the era in this book is that the author tackles what wealthy people lived like and what very poor people went through in this era, so you get to see both sides of the coin, per se. It was also very interesting to me that the author made sure to include how controversial the making of the Eiffel Tower was during this time. What a surprise to me, that something that is so symbolic of Paris now, was once so rejected in its time.
I don't think it was an accident for the author to place her characters in Paris. For many, Paris seems like a city of dreams, maybe because it possesses so much culture and history, but there is something about the idea of Paris, that has been inspiring for many across the centuries. Especially those who seek academic freedom and who want to pursue art. Maude, the lead heroine in this book, left her really constricted life next to her father, to see if she could find more and not just become somebody's wife. Same with Isabelle, the daughter of her first client, who dreams of leaving debutante life and becoming a woman who studies and can support her own self.
There is also a cute romance that develops unexpectedly between Maude and Paul, a struggling musician, that was quite endearing.
I really liked this book. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes to read about art, self discovery, Paris, and friendship.
My Rating: 4/5