Review originally posted on Book Divas
Title: Belle Epoque
Author: Elizabeth Ross
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: June 11, 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Book Divas
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.
At first I had mixed feelings about Elizabeth Ross’s debut, but there were a lot of things I liked about it: it was super feminist and quirky, two things I love in book, particularly in historical fiction, since I rarely dabble in that particular genre. I felt Ross did a good job exploiting the theme of the importance of beauty and how it impacted women at that time. Despite the historical setting, she also made this theme relevant to today by focusing on the place of unattractive women in society.
Something I wish Ross had done was to make Maude more unattractive. Though she is viewed by the agency that way, she is described as merely “plain” whereas the other girls in the agency are described much more distastefully. Unattractive narrators are extremely rare in young adult literature, but I think they are important to include. As Ross shows in Belle Epoque, beauty plays a significant role in defining one’s place in society, but traditional beauty standards make it nearly impossible to achieve.
I also felt that as a character, Maude was fairly predictable. You know she’s going to fall for aristocratic life right away despite Marie-Josee’s warnings, and you know her life will fall apart once Isabelle and Paul find out the truth about her. The ending also bothered me because I felt it was kind of cliché, as well as unrealistic. I just didn’t know how possible it was that something like that could have happened in Paris in the 1800s, both in terms of the agency’s downfall and other parts of Maude’s life, like Isabelle, who dreams of studying science at the Sorbonne. I’m sure women were interested in such subjects, but I don’t know how likely it was that they could have really studied them, even women in places of privilege like
One thing Belle Epoque definitely had going for it was the writing. Ross’s prose really put me in the mood of the story, and it was not at all difficult to imagine myself in Maude’s Paris. Another thing that really worked for me was the romance, which I felt had a lot of tension despite lack of actual action, and moved along at a pace that seemed believable for the time period. Ross also did well building up the tension, despite the predictability of the plot, although sometimes I felt the climaxes weren’t as strong as they could be.
Though I did have some issues with this book regarding believability and predictability, I definitely think it’s worth a read. Belle Epoque is a truly unique, thought-provoking debut that’s certainly worth a try.