Author: Elizabeth Ross
Genre: YA, historical fiction, AWESOME, someone did their research
Publication Date: June 11, 2013 (Random House – North America)
Source: NetGalley Review Copy
Summary: 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.
☆: 4.5/5 stars – a delicious fin-de-siecle tale!
Review: This was actually a really educational read for me – the author’s notes at the end of the book were wonderful, and it was so gratifying to see that Ross did her research on the topic of which I had no idea existed. “Belle Epoque” is a gorgeous tale of finding beauty in ugliness, ugliness in beauty, and most of all, finding yourself in a sea of what people want you to be. This was one of my most anticipated spring/summer 2013 titles, and it definitely did not disappoint. If you’re looking for a well-researched and generally awesome YA historical book this summer, go for “Belle Epoque”.
Fitting in “tough stuff” issues into a historical novel isn’t easy, but Ross did it with surprising grace and made it the basis of her novel. Generally, girls have been feeling “unpretty” in Western culture for years, but I posit that it only got really bad within the last 200 years or so – and only really really intensifying within the last 30 years. That’s where the whole subject of this book, the repoissoirs, comes in – or the “beauty foils”. The idea of capitalizing on girls’ self-loathing and turning into gold is still pretty repugnant, but at least in this book (and in Zola’s original tale on the same phenomenon), it’s honest and said right out there from the jump. In our culture today, we’ve totally hidden (or tried to hide) Durandeau’s greed on making money with “ugly” girls, so it was really quite a breath of fresh air to read something so honest. If anything, it makes me wish that there were more Durandeaus in the world (terrible as that sounds) – it actually might give girls MORE self-esteem about their body image or dysphorias through jobs like these. Which is what eventually happens in this book through various events (which I won’t spoil).
I won’t lie when I say that I do feel like Maude does most of the time throughout the book – unpretty, unremarkable, and forgettable. But at least she’s getting paid for those traits. Maude was one of the most relatable and sympathetic main characters I’ve stumbled across in YA (not just historical YA) in the last few years, and I really got attached to her. I was sad when I got to the last page – but at the same time, happy, because she finally found her groove (so to speak), and it kind of gave me hope that I’ll (hopefully soon) be able to do the same thing.
Where to start? All of the technical areas in this book (worldbuilding, character building, sensory imagery and language, plot/arc) are more or less flawless so I won’t linger too much on those as I really don’t have too many complaints. The pacing is great, too – not too slow nor fast, and gives us just enough time to linger in the places where we should be lingering. While I wish that Paul had a little bit more character development (considering the larger role he plays in the resolution of the story), what I got was adequate, and enough to go on in terms of the semi-open ending.
The other thing that bothered me a bit – Isabelle, her mother, and Maude’s big confrontation at the climax of the story (I think you guys can figure it out from the blurb on the book as I don’t want to spoil you) felt a little rushed, and even though the pace was snowballing into a big finish, I do think that it could have been slowed down just a bit and not lose any of the impact it had on the reader emotionally. I can’t really pinpoint why it felt so fast, only that it did.
My favorite thing in this book aside from Maude and rest of the main cast has to be the sensory imagery. My god, it was as if I was really there – and I’ve never been to Paris! At least, not yet. Ross did an absolutely fantastic job capturing fin-de-siecle French culture, and everything thing felt, tasted, smelled like Paris. If anything, it’s made me want to go there even more.
Otherwise? This is a wonderful, wonderful book, and I can’t wait to get my copy of it. Definitely a favorite of 2013 so far, “Belle Epoque” hits shelves today in North America from Random House, so definitely be sure to check it out when you get the chance.