by Elizabeth Ross
To be published by Delacorte BFYR
on June 11, 2013
Source: ARC from indie bookstore
Connect with the author: website : Twitter.
Summary (from Goodreads:) 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.Ten words or fewer: female friendship, navigating the marriage market, fin de siècle Paris.
My longer take: Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, Belle Epoque was inspired by a short story by Émile Zola called Les Repoussoirs. You know the theory that beautiful yet insecure girls seek out less attractive female friends to make themselves look and feel better? In Zola's story, a salesman rents out unattractive girls to serve as companions for young society women on the marriage market, making their employers seem lovelier by comparison.
The story opens as Maude -- who has fled to Paris to escape an unappealing arranged marriage -- answers a newspaper ad and learns about the repoussoir concept. At first, she's insulted and horrified, but she needs the money and eventually accepts a job as companion to Isabelle, the daughter of a countess. Isabelle thinks that Maude is a distant relative of her mother's close friend, but Maude has actually been hired to help Isabelle make an advantageous marriage. But when Maude learns that Isabelle's plans are at odds with those of the countess, she'll have to decide where her loyalties lie.
Belle Epoque is rich in sensory description and full of wonderful details about turn-of-the-century Paris. At the time the story takes place, the Eiffel Tower was being built, and I loved the way that the book wove in historical information about its construction -- and the strong objections at the time about its design.
I also liked the fact that the story looked at love and romance with a somewhat jaded eye. As much as I love some swooniness in a book, this story takes place at a time in which most women had little freedom or education and were subject to the whims and expectations of men. So, as romantic as "the Season" and the marriage market are made to seem in some fiction, I liked that this book pointed out the other side of the story.
The first third of the book is spent on Maude's training to enter society, and I thought that part of the story could have been compressed into fewer pages. The main source of tension in the plot revolves around the fact that Isabelle is unaware that Maude is her paid companion, and for me that wasn't quite enough plot to sustain a 300+ page story. That, combined with the lack of romantic tension as described above, made the book feel rich with description and atmosphere, but a bit thin on plot.
Belle Epoque is a beautifully written book rich with period detail. It takes place during a time period I find particularly fascinating -- a time when cities like New York, London and Paris were becoming important centers of culture and commerce. Though YA readers who crave lots of romance and drama may find this book a bit too languid for their taste, I whole-heartedly recommend Belle Epoque to Francophiles and fans of historical fiction.