August 22, 2013

Review: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

Belle Epoque
Author: Elizabeth Ross
Release Date: June 11th, 2013
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Page Count: 336
Source: Borrowed from the New York Public Library
Rating: Paris, photography, love stories, a very different sort of plot... what else could a girl ask for?
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.

[Summary Source: Goodreads]

Maude is basically Belle but she's into cameras instead of books. And is supposedly less pretty. And needs to a job to support herself. So nothing like Belle except she too wants more than this provincial life. But who can blame her? Her pops wants to marry her off to the old butcher across the street so he can have free meat. Maude's not so down with that so she snags the money in her father's till and runs off to Paris where life is supposedly magical. But it's not. Which is clear based off the fact that Maude becomes a Repoussoir - an ugly/plain looking girl meant to make a pretty girl look prettier. Maude ends up snagging a HUGE account, but the girl she's playing foil to doesn't actually know Maude's a Repoussoir - Isabelle's mama hired her in secret. All goes well for a while. But then? Not so much.

Let's break this down:

Okay. It's official. I love Paris always. No matter what point in history you take me to, I'm pretty sure I'm always going to love this particular European city. My proof of the moment? THIS BOOK.

The premise of this book is actually really interesting and totally different. Yeah, we've all read books where the main character is insecure because she thinks she's ugly and then goes through a journey to find her inner beauty (which does happen in this book, in a way), but a book where you're valued for your ugliness in the strange, twisted way that Durandeau does is kind of... strange. And new.

And guess what - new is GOOD.

Everything that happens to Maude and that Maude does in this book might be a little obvious - her running away, the extreme hesitance to work for Durandeau, what happens when she lands her high profile job... - but watching her go through it all and seeing her progression from a plain looking girl to a girl who thinks she's ugly over to a girl who sees her own beauty is stunning. And the use of photography to get over herself? Truly delightful.

Now, while some of the plot points really are a little obvious (as mentioned above) and the prose gets a little stuck with all the French words dropped in (it was a little more than just the basics everyone knows), the psychological aspect of this book is so strong that none of the rest matters (and the prose, French aside, is truly wonderful).

I mean, imagine you're this downtrodden girl who runs away to Paris for her big romance. Then she gets there and it sucks and the only thing she can do to make a living is work for a man who rents her out to be ugly. So, like, the trauma there is pretty extreme. But it's not just that because Maude also has to LIE to this girl who actually becomes her friend AND to this really hunky bohemian she's met (think Christian from Moulin Rouge but a pianist instead of a writer). So Maude thinks she's ugly and knows she's a liar and she's miserable about both of these things but she can't stop because, hello, girl needs to pay rent. And she also starts to spiral out of control for other reasons as the book goes on. So it only gets worse.

But even as it gets worse, it somehow starts to get better within the worse. Maude learns about photography and the beauty that can be captured on film. And she learns about Paul's world, that is somehow more than just about paying rent and surviving. So even as she's messing everything up, Maude begins to understand the concept of beauty and really learns what she needs to learn in order to get herself out of her own mess. Which is what she ends up doing. How? I won't say. But it's good. REALLY GOOD.

Oh. Also. Paul? Wonderful. He's a boozy, insecure, hot mess and I'd like one to take home with me, please and thanks.

The long and short of it?

Plot: Maybe a little obvious at times, but truly wonderful.
World Building: This book was based on a short story by Emile Zola (there's an author's note in the back). Which is cool. But mostly I honestly believe something like this would happen. The emphasis on beauty both back then and today would totally lead to something as demeaning as Durandeau's agency.
Character Development: I loved the journey Maude takes. As someone who's been insecure about how she looks in the past (who hasn't had at least one moment of doubt?) this book really nails the concept of beauty on the head.
Prose: Aside from the random French words (why wouldn't they be speaking French?) the words that make up this story flowed wonderfully.
Would I Recommend This Book?: This is a book for Paris lovers, historical fiction lovers, photography lovers and readers who like something a just a little bit different.

Have you read this one? Maybe you're curious now. Or maybe you're just crying because you've been to Paris, understand my love and are upset you're not there with me RIGHT NOW eating macarons. Let's cry together in the comments below, shall we?


  1. Ooooh I knew there was a good reason I was so drawn to this book. I'm so glad to hear all the positives because I would be so disappointed if this was bad. I love the idea of integrating photography and having that help her grow. Also, PARIS. Clearly a must read for me. Very soon.

  2. Paris. Photography. History. I'm closely scanning the cover to see where it has my name on it. I'm pretty sure you told me to read this book but now I'm like I NEED TO READ THIS NOWWWWWWW. Even though the plot was pretty obvious, this has so many of my favorite things combined that I HAVE to love it. Right? RIGHT?

  3. I liked this book, but didn't love it, if that makes sense. The setting was wonderful, and I really liked the questions that this book made me ask as I read it. But I didn't really fall in love with the characters. And I wasn't too keen on the pacing of this story for some reason. It's still beautifully written though!


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