Title: Belle Epoque
Author: Elizabeth Ross
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication Date: 5th September 2013
Source: Review copy from publisher
Goodreads Description: When sixteen-year-old Maude runs away to Paris, her romantic dreams vanish as quickly as her savings. Increasingly desperate for money, she answers a mysterious advert: ‘Young Women Wanted for Undemanding Work. Apply In Person To The Durandeau Agency.’ But the work is very strange indeed. Maude discovers she is to be a repoussoir – an ugly young woman hired by Parisian socialites to enhance their beauty.
Maude is humiliated – but faced with destitution, what choice does she have? Quickly (and secretly) selected as the perfect companion for the Countess Dubern’s daughter Isabelle, Maude is thrown into a decadent world full of parties, glamour and astonishing cruelty. Maude finds that academic Isabelle is equally disenchanted with the Parisian social scene, and the girls form a tight bond. But when bohemian artist Paul and the handsome Duke d’Avaray are introduced into the girls’ lives, their friendship will be tested to its limits. The girls are about to discover the true meaning of being beautiful…
Review: The second I read the synopsis for Belle Epoque, I knew I had to read it. I’d never heard of a book about this subject and it seemed like just a fascinating concept; how would it feel to know that you’ve been hired to be the ugly sidekick? It sounds almost inhuman and yet sadly there probably are modern equivalents to the repoussoir – I can think of ‘jokes’ about rating people by numbers and surrounding yourself with or dating someone a few numbers below you to enhance your own looks that make me highly uncomfortable.
Maude is a runaway in Paris who after losing her job is in dire need of employment. When she finds an advert with an undemanding for young women at the Durandeau Agency, she is curious but on arrival is horrified when the penny clicks and she realises there was a word missing on her advert: ugly. When she reluctantly accepts she becomes the companion of Isabelle Dubern, a young woman with no idea who Maude really is, a love of academia and someone Maude cannot help becoming friends with.
There is a lot to say about this book but what really makes it stand out is its concept and how timeless the themes raised are. Beauty is wholly subjective and Belle Epoque really highlights how wrong it can be to define people by their looks. The historical setting and period works really well to support this as there’s a sense of decadence with the balls and banquets but the hint of reality and poverty beyond this with several early scenes that are set in a laundry.
Maude really stood out for me in terms of characters and I cannot imagine how soul destroying and draining it would be to take the job she does. Maude’s journey to reconcile her own self-worth and beauty throughout the book is thought provoking and effective. I really loved her growing relationship with Paul, an artist, in the book too. While at points reading it I wondered why Maude didn’t perhaps leave Paris and try a different city, other than her hometown, she still felt relatable and I could also see why she stayed.
At times I felt like Isabelle was almost too modern for the period, however there was a development later in the novel which lent more credence to her authenticity and therefore I would say that Ross avoided making Isabelle too anachronistic overall. I found it interesting that Isabelle was a character who grew on me as at first I really didn’t like her but as the plot developed my impressions changed. I also felt Maude should have been upfront with Isabelle immediately in the novel when she begins to genuinely become her friend, however I suppose that would have reduced the tension significantly in the novel!
There is a strong theme of friendship running through Belle Epoque and it was great to see a YA which didn’t entirely focus on romance but at its emotional core showcased the friendship between two very different young women and the power of friendship. While I previously mentioned some moments in which I was unsure on their friendship, as the novel progressed the friendship felt genuine and honest to me and assuaged my earlier doubts.
Overall I found Belle Epoque an enjoyable read and really enjoyed reading about a historical period I didn’t know much about before. Fans of historical YA will undoubtedly find a lot that appeals to them within Belle Epoque but the timeless discussions on beauty and the price we put on it offers a wider appeal to readers.
I received a free copy from Hot Key Books for reviewing purposes. My review is honest and its tone and content unaffected by the means in which I received the book.