Genre: YA Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: June 11, 2013
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads says, "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."
Maude Pichon grew up in the country and leaves her old life behind for the glamour of magical Paris. She doesn't have any connections when she comes to Paris and has to fend for herself. She responds to an advertisement looking for work and when she arrives at The Durandeau Agency she has no idea what she is in for. This agency provides the upper class with an "ugly" girl to showcase how beautiful their client is by having the two be out socializing together. Once Maude figures out what exactly The Durandeau Agency is all about, she is horrified, but realizes that she needs the money desperately or she'll be out on the streets. Her other job as a laundress proves to be long hours, hard work and very little money. Even though her job at the agency is degrading, she can't deny the fact that she would make decent money. On her first day, Countess Dubern hires her to be a companion to her stubborn daughter, Isabelle. The catch is that Maude must not tell Isabelle who she truly is; instead, Isabelle must think that Maude is a friend of the family. Over time, Maude finds herself befriending Isabelle, but she can't forget that she works for the Countess and the Countess has one thing in mind: to marry Isabelle off whether she wants to be married or not. Maude's loyalties are tested, especially since she has a lot more at stake than just her job. Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross is an engaging debut that fans of historical fiction with enjoy.
Maude is a heroine who reminds me a lot of classical heroines from Bronte or even Jane Eyre. She wants more for her life than to be married off to someone her father chooses, which is why she leaves the country for Paris. She has so many dreams and hopes when she intially gets to Paris, but they are all thwarted by the fact that she needs to simply survive. Paris isn't as glamourous as it seems if you don't have money, which is why she takes the demeaning job at the agency. I couldn't help but root for her as she deals with many trials and tribulations, especially when she is up against the Countess.
The setting of 19th century Paris is fantastic in Belle Epoque. I think Ross did a great job bringing it to life and showing both the beautiful aspects as well as the hardships that the poor faced. One thing that I found so fascinating about Belle Epoque is the concept of a "repoussoirs" (French for repulsor). I had never heard about that before and I found the whole concept to be equally disturbing as well as compelling.
Belle Epoque explores so many different things about life, such as peer pressure, beauty, society's expectations, parents' expectations, finding yourself, and finally pursuing your dreams. I highly recommend Belle Epoque to fans of historical fiction this summer. It would be the perfect escape to 19th century Paris and I promise that you will be rooting for Maude, too.