Review: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

I received this book for free from YA Books Central in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth RossBelle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross
Published by Delacorte BFYR on June 11, 2013
Genres: Historical, Romance
Pages: 336
Format: Hardcover
Source: YA Books Central
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four-stars

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.

Society does a number on people. In every era, though fashions change from culture to historical period, certain people are considered attractive and others ugly. For those with beautiful faces, be they rubenesque, sharply skinny, dimpled, butt-chinned, freckled, pale as snow, or dark as obsidian, life always is just that little bit easier. Odds of marrying into wealth or more wealth, of finding people to admire you, of obtaining a position go up because of that face.

In young adult fiction, the current standards of beauty are generally held up and shown to be the ideal. The heroes and heroines are perfection: wealthy, if at all possible, but in almost all cases beautiful by the standards of that time. The average YA character is often described as looking like a model. In such a world, the average cease to stand out and a plain face like Maude Pichon’s can come to the forefront. In a sea of perfectly symmetrical face, the strange and unique are immediately more compelling.

Maude Pichon left her small town in France for Paris to escape marriage to the town’s old, fat butcher. Once there, she has difficulty finding work, so she answers a strange ad for employment only to discover they want to hire ugly girls as foils to their wealthy clients, using juxtaposition to make those faces appear more lovely. Rightly insulted, Maude leaves, but dire financial straits bring her back.

Elizabeth Ross successfully shows just how much society’s whims affect a person, even as they try to reject them. Maude thinks the whole agency is horrible, and doesn’t want to believe she belongs there. Even so, she feels that she’s of another class above the other repoussoirs. Though she resents being treated with disdain because of her own appearance, she does the same thing almost without awareness that she’s doing so. It’s human nature to want to be desirable and to want to have it better than at least someone. Misery loves company that’s even more miserable.

Belle Epoque depicts society, warts and all. No one really comes out of this book smelling like roses. Everyone’s highly flawed and warped by social mores. I loved the honesty of this, because it’s so true, but people rarely take the time to realize it. Even the heroines and the sympathetic people take part in opinions and behaviors that are rather reprehensible when you think about them closely.

Maude comes into a rather classic conflict of going for what she wants or what society makes her think she wants. She ends up chasing after things she never even wanted until her work as a repoussoir put her in contact with a realm of society which she’d never before had access to. Even if you’re happy with what you have, there’s a bit of you that cannot resist feeling envy when confronted with other people’s lives of greater luxury. Why don’t I have a basketball court in my basement? Hey, I might not like basketball, but it’s still not fair! The other side of this is conveyed through Isabelle, Maude’s client’s daughter, who wishes for freedom, even at the expense of the life to which she became accustomed. Ross tackles all of this tactfully and honestly.

The only drawbacks for me were the ending and my lack of emotional attachment. I appreciate the message and idea of the ending, but it felt a bit too happy. Everything wrapped up too neatly, too ideally, and I couldn’t suspend disbelief to that degree. I also felt detached the whole time, because Maude’s decisions were hard for me to really sympathize with, even if I understood why she made them.

Elizabeth Ross’ Belle Epoque stands out from the average YA novel in its honest look at society’s expectations and the way it warps one’s mind. I think this is a historical that would work for readers who generally only enjoy contemporaries.

Favorite Quote:

Groping in the blackness seems an appropriate metaphor for the creative life. You are compelled to do this work but cannot know the end result; the truth of the moment you captured on the plate remains a mystery. You feel in the dark for the edge of the basin and the plate itself. I love this moment. The hope that I channel into each effort reaches its peak in those dark moments of mystery when the bow of the unseen connects with the taut string of my spine and sends a shiver the length of my back, not of fear, but of possibility. This time, I might have it.

Tl;dr – Book in a GIFfy:

nothing's ever perfect

3 responses to “Review: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross”

  1. This sounds awesome. Also, I know I sound crass for saying this but holy crap I would love to get paid to stand around all day and make someone else look beautiful just by them standing next to plain old me. Like are you kidding, that job sounds so easy.

    Also.

    I like that no one comes out smelling like a rose, that is awesome. I need to read this, basically.
    April Books & Wine recently posted…Frankenstein | Mary Shelley | Audiobook ReviewMy Profile

  2. This is a very thoughtful review and I agree with much of what you state here. The only thing I felt differently about was my sympathy towards Maude. I can imagine myself making many similar decisions to hers – or at least considering them. No one was in an easy situation, which I appreciated.
    I’ve never really thought about this book being a good pick for those who enjoy their contemporaries (as I read it because I love historical fiction), but I see your point. There is definitely a certain timelessness to a book focused on beauty standards that can be so easily applied to our current society.
    Amanda @ Late Nights with Good Books recently posted…Review: Nowhere But Home by Liza PalmerMy Profile

  3. Great review! I read this a few weeks ago (actually just posted my review yesterday, very similar timing considering how long ago it came out!) and was left with a slightly less favourable impression than yours. I too found it hard to get emotionally attached and thought that it was all tied up a bit too well at the end. Isabelle was my favourite part of the book. She was refreshingly honest in a sea of liars.
    Rose @ The Bedtime Bookworm recently posted…Review – Belle Epoque by Elizabeth RossMy Profile

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