Monday, June 17, 2013

Review: 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.
Though not an infallible rule, I can often tell if I'll love a book by the time I finish the first page. It's something that goes beyond a snappy first sentence or an interesting hook. I don't know if it's just the quality writing or what, but immersing myself in that first page feels like slipping into a cool pool on a hot summer day. It's effortless.

Belle Epoque gave me that feeling, and it was magical.

This book had so many good things going for it. I loved the concept of repoussoirs and the questions they raise. "Repoussoir" comes from a French verb meaning to repel or repulse. Repoussoirs are literally hired for their "repulsion." Their ugliness makes those around them appear more beautiful than they are. Maude's coworkers use several different metaphors to explain their work, but my favorite is the one about the peaches. When a customer looks at a baskets of fresh peaches, they all appear very much alike. However, take an ordinary, fresh peach, place it next to a shriveled peach, and suddenly the "ordinary" peach becomes the "good" peach. In the same way, an ordinary, beautiful debutante, when placed next to a repoussoir, suddenly becomes the most appealing option.

It's a very logical concept, one that the more unscrupulous social-climbers of Paris exploit to their own advantage. When Maude is first hired by the Countess Dubern as a repoussoir, to be the cheap metal foil to her daughter Isabelle's jewel, Maude is mortified and embarrassed. To acknowledge that you're less than society's image of beauty is one thing; to have your faults bluntly listed by others is another. Watching Maude's self-image vacillate depending on her mood and circumstances throughout the book was immensely fascinating.

I also appreciated that Ms. Ross didn't Cinderellize Maude and her fellow repoussoirs. Maude is frequently described as plain and unremarkable, a shadow to Isabelle's sunbeam. The other girls range from merely unattractive to hideous. At no point in the book do they suddenly transform from ugly ducklings to graceful swans. Even when Maude is swathed in beautiful dresses and draped in jewels, she is merely passable, ultimately forgettable in Isabelle's wake.

I had been thinking in the weeks leading up to reading this book about how refreshing it would be to read about a heroine who wasn't mesmerizingly beautiful. And suddenly, tada! Here's my book! Of course, it's no spoiler to say that in the end Maude does meet someone who thinks her beautiful, but both girl and suitor recognize that beauty truly is in the eye of a beholder, and that just as a sour personality can ugly a beautiful face, a wonderful personality can prettify a homely face.

Speaking of personalities, I thoroughly enjoyed the characters! Maude herself was interesting, and I worried about her as I watched her change under the influence of Paris high society. The other repoussoirs were a lively bunch, and I adored Marie-Josee. In fact, she was probably my second favorite character of the entire story, despite being in her early thirties, an odd age for a YA novel. I will say that the villains of the story, the countess and Durandeau, were rather one-dimensional, but I was happy to overlook them, especially in light of my favorite character of the entire story, Isabelle.

I did not expect to like Isabelle as much as I did. My word! Though originally standoffish and conniving, I soon fell in love with the real Isabelle. While her mother pushes her toward an advantageous marriage, all Isabelle wants is to go to school. She loves to learn and create and experiment. She even has her own secret study in her home, reminding me strongly of an older Flavia de Luce. She's even stubborn and sneaky like Flavia!

The boys in this story were also interesting. Wait, let me back up. The boys themselves were fine. They felt a bit light on the characterization, and I wasn't totally sold on the romance between Maude and one of the boys. However, they were all very handsome, and I had fun trying to guess who would (or would not) end up with whom. Would Isabelle end up with the charming and kind duke? Or perhaps she would meet bohemian artist Paul and fall in love with his mind? Or would Maude steal the show? Perhaps even Laurent would get in on the action! (I never quite trusted Xavier, though, not that I was supposed to.)

I saved the best part for last. The absolute best, no-doubt-about-it part of Belle Epoque is the setting. I'll admit that while I can easily lose myself in a fantasy world, I've never understood how people can read a book set in a real place and feel "there." It just doesn't compute for me. Usually my brain only latches on to new places. Places I've already been tend to fail the authenticity test.

Guys, Belle Epoque is set in Paris, and I felt like I was there. Well and truly, I did. I could feel the cobblestones beneath my feet, taste the baguettes and pan aux chocolat, hear the trilling accents. It was all THERE. I've never read a more French book in all my life. I visited Paris back in 2010 and literally have never missed it as much as when I read this book. The setting completely MADE this book for me.

I can't say this is a perfect book. There are certainly a few wonky spots, a few scenes I would have cut, some characters I would have strengthened, some consequences I would have deepened. However, I was so in love with certain aspects of the book that I was more than willing to put up with the weaker sections. If you find discussions of beauty interesting, READ IT. If you love Paris, French culture, and/or strong settings, READ IT. If you like Flavia de Luce/smart and headstrong characters, READ IT. If you... Forget it. I could go on. I'm surprised I haven't already devolved into a slavering mess. Suffice to say, I will be purchasing this book when it comes out. The end.

Points Added For: PARIS, French culture, the setting oh my gosh, Isabelle, Marie-Josee, the depiction of early photography.

Points Subtracted For: That weird imagined flashback about the birth of the agency, lack of development of some characters, consequences that didn't match the built tension.

Good For Fans Of: PARIS, historical fiction, French culture, the servant girl who dreams of something more.

Notes For Parents: Some light language, a rich man tries to corner a servant girl, some drinking (though not technically underage in that time period).

Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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