Google+ YA Romantics: Just Finished Reading … Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Just Finished Reading … Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

Review of Belle Epoque
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.

24 comments:

  1. Love your review Jen! I honestly can't wait to pick this one up now! I love these types of books, it's definitely one of my guilty pleasures, book wise!

    Happy Reading!

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    1. Reading about Paris is always a pleasure! Hope you love this one!

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  2. This sounds like a beautiful book. I don't read a lot of historical fiction, but this one has been one I've been thinking about. Great review as always!

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    1. Definitely more slow-paced, but really an enjoyable read!

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  3. I am eager to read this one. I've gotten more into historical fiction lately so I think I would enjoy this one.

    My Friends Are Fiction

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    1. If you are used to reading historical fiction or nineteenth century fiction, I think you'd love it!

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  4. It's such a different concept but I can see it being real at that time. I stopped reading historical fiction last year, but I think this might make me want to get into that genre again. Great review, Jen.

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  5. Love that cover. I'm a fan of the LUXE series, which I still haven't finished. Something about the the different settings always intrigues me. I think I'll check this out.

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    1. I still swear the girl on the cover is Edith from Downton Abbey!

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  6. I've been seeing this one around and wondering what it was about. Interesting concept... although, I'm currently in the mood for swoon.

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    1. Well, hold off for a bit, as there is not a lot of swoon, but loads of great descriptions of Paris life...

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  7. For some reason I thought this book focused a bit more on magic (a la Born of Illusion-not sure how I got that idea) so I'm glad to have more information about what it actually is about. I like the sound of the writing but feel like there's not enough plot so I don't think I'll be reading this one any time soon.

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    1. Nope, no magic at all in this one -- it's a straight historical.

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  8. I always hate knowing something the main protagonist doesn't know, especially if it is a big thing, so that this book revolves around that... I'm not sure it'll be a book I would want to read..

    great review,
    - Juhina @ Maji Bookshelf

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    1. I actually like the Big Secret plots -- I just wish this one had also managed to get some other suspense or tension in the story… I kept thinking of ways to add more suspense: Maude's intended comes to Paris to look for her -- he's a butcher with sharp tools...
      But I've also learned that I need to accept a book on its own terms, and this one was just a quieter kind of story….

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  9. Jen such a beautifully written review :D

    For those that enjoy Historical Fiction with a bit of scandal, The Heiresses by Allison Rushby was a really fun read. It's set in London though.

    Angelica @ Paperback Princess

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  10. Sounds intriguing. Thanks for your review.

    Andreea @ http://themoonlitbookshelf.blogspot.de/

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  11. This book caught my eye too, because I am completely enamored with the Belle Epoque period of history. And who can resist Paris?:) Thanks for the review:)

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  12. I love Paris settings but I rarely read anything historical. I just find myself zoning out. Although I did love Venom so I have been thinking of trying more historical fiction.

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  13. This is the first review I've read for this book and it definitely sounds interesting. I like the idea of seeing a growing France, but the plot does sound a little thin. Still, you've got me wanting to read this one!

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  14. Love the sound of the female friendship in this one

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  15. This is an historical book? I love to read these. Thanks for sharing.

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  16. Wonderful review. I love books written in the rich detail that only historicals seem to do justice to. I've been intrigued by Belle Epoque and your review of it was great. Thanks!

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