Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross
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.
(Desciption from Goodreads)
I read this book for my young adult literature course, because it was one of the books up to win the William C. Morris YA Debut Award (it lost to Charm and Strange). I rather enjoyed this book, though there were some reasons for why this wasn’t an A for me.
This book is a different take on accepting yourself for who you are, inside and out. It’s even more interesting because instead of being a contemporary YA book, it’s a historical fiction take; historical fiction is a difficult genre to handle, unless you really do your research, but I felt that Ross did a great job with it.
Okay, negatives first. The pace of this book was a little slow for me at first. It took me a good while to actually get into the story; it was a great story, but it was really slow (for me) during the first…1/3 of the book I’d say. After that, it really picked up and I really enjoyed it. However, going off of the pace subject, the really big climax of the book was really fast; there could have been so much more added to it, but I feel like Ross rushed it a bit, leaving the reader going, “wait, what just happened?” It was really suspenseful, but it felt so rushed, I didn’t really get a good chance to process what was going on.
Another negative was that I felt Isabelle was a much stronger character than Maude was, despite the fact that she was a secondary (main) character. Maude was the main character and Isabelle was second in line, but Isabelle came off as more likeable and more full of life (make sense?) than Maude did. Even though this is great that a secondary character was that strong, it didn’t help that the main character wasn’t as strong; I liked her well enough, but I didn’t find myself rooting for her the way I did for Isabelle.
I thought this book was beautifully written. It was a fantastic and imaginative take on how society views beauty, inside and outside. I really enjoyed how at the beginning Maude had low self-esteem, but by the end of the book, she had built up this issue and become proud of who she was. Even though she become a repoussoir (basically someone who “repels” the public eye from them to someone more attractive) in order to support herself, this job built up her self-esteem and allowed her to see herself as she should, not how society tells her she should.
The characters of this book were all fantastic, even those you ended up hating (that’s what makes them a great character…they made you feel how the author wanted you to feel about them). I enjoyed how the girls employed at the Durandeau Agency interacted with one another, both when they were being “shown off” to potential clients and then behind closed doors or when they were off the clock. Even the snooty girls were likeable in some way. The descriptions of each girl, though repulsive, were easy to take in and imagine.
I loved the setting of this book: 19th century Paris. Swoon. I also loved how Ross managed to keep the characters in the character of that time, without it feeling forced. It was obvious that Ross did her research when it came to creating this story in order to portray a real feel of the time. The added information about the Eiffel Tower being built was also a great backdrop to the rest of the story, adding just that extra flare of historical background to the time in Paris.
There was a sense of predictability to the story, as it was almost blatantly obvious that the climax that happened was going to happen, but it was still suspenseful and caused me to hold my breath a few times. I enjoyed the relationship that formed between Maude and Isabelle, as well as with Maude and other secondary characters, like her love interest. Though I wish there had been more scenes that could have helped Maude develop these relationships that much more, it was still a wonderful story about find your beauty and confidence.