“Perfect, just perfect,” says the stout man. He scrutinizes me, his suit pinching across his rotund torso, and I assume that this is Monsieur Durandeau, but he doesn’t introduce himself.
“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.”
Belle Epoque was an entertaining historical novel in between middle grade and YA (it’s listed as ages 12 and up, but really someone younger than 12 could read it). The “repoussoirs” (the repellers), as they’re called, exist only to make their patrons appear more attractive. They’re barely viewed as humans by the nobility who use them; they’re merely accessories, just like a hat or an umbrella. Maude at first really doesn’t want to become one, as it’s very degrading work, and she has her dignity. The first time she comes to the Agency she leaves, but eventually she’s forced to come back because she needs the money, and she hasn’t been able to find any other way to make enough. Plus, being a repoussoir is a pretty cushy job, if you can put up with the humiliation of it.
The writing in Belle Epoque certainly wasn’t great, but I think Elizabeth Ross described the upper crust of Parisian society very well, with its competition, biting remarks, and obsession with appearance. I’m certainly no expert at all on the 1890’s, but it seemed historically accurate and well-researched.
The idea of the beauty foil is an interesting one; I’m not sure if it actually happened in the late nineteenth century. I wouldn’t put it past such a glittering, beauty-focused society. It’s an interesting period, I think, and definitely one that I would like to know more about. In the author’s note, Elizabeth Ross talks about a short story by Zola which inspired her.
As for the characters, Maude wasn’t that interesting to me, but I liked the character of Marie-Josee. Isabelle was also very interesting; she’s a debutante, but she doesn’t particularly want to be one. She doesn’t want to become a trophy wife to a duke just because her mother wants her to marry well. Isabelle has a secret room in which she reads, photographs, and makes scientific observations. Maude and Isabelle actually become friends, and I was dreading the moment when Isabelle inevitably discovered that her mother was paying Maude to befriend her. Isabelle was probably my favorite character, opinionated and intelligent.
You might be wondering where the subtitle of “a novel of beauty and betrayal” comes from. Well, the beauty part is easily answered. But the betrayal? Belle Epoque Paris is swirling with intrigue and secrets; Maude is leading a double life with the Duberns, and she also has her own life in the artist’s quarter. That felt a bit forced, but the sub-plot was still enjoyable.
Yet Belle Epoque kind of feels like the author’s fantasy; of being in Paris at the rise of so many artists, during the Belle Epoque, the “Beautiful era”. The novel is written in present tense, so it kind of feels like a daydream of another life, with the descriptions of the beauty of the city and the art. Of course, Maude must suffer lots of hardships too; she runs away from her village to avoid marrying the butcher, and is starving in Paris for a while before the book begins. Speaking of her running away, I kind of wish the author had included more background about her mother and her country life at the beginning. Not an information dump necessarily, but just a few more facts. It would have probably helped me understand Maude more.
I’ll admit, though, that Belle Epoque kind of made me want to visit Paris at that time for a little bit. Though the society is cruel and capricious, there’s also such beauty present in the houses that Maude visits, and that only she is able to fully appreciate because she’s never seen it before. She describes the Rochefort’s house: “The floor is polished, shining like a new chestnut, and couples are dancing in perfect time; the dresses are like twirling butterflies of silk, each one anchored to a dark suit and white tie. Pale mint walls are crowned with ornate moldings; bronze sconces fashioned like intertwining rose branches hold pink candles. Gilt-frame mirrors as tall as the room are interspersed between vast windows, and sugar pink settees are positioned along the wall. The light is golden and fizzing. I’m speechless – it feels as if I’m walking through the pages of a fairy tale.” (pgs. 122-123). I loved that description, those words. And perhaps Maude is right, perhaps she is walking through the pages of a fairy tale. Belle Epoque certainly reads like one, set in the past, full of beautiful and ugly things.
I would most definitely recommend this one. I really, really liked it. Thanks to Delacorte Books for sending me a review copy.