Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

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Belle Epoque

Elizabeth Ross


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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.

I understood something I will never forget: how I wished to arrest all the beauty that came before me. Not the classical beauty of symmetry and exact proportions or the fancy of fashion, which is ever-changing with the seasons, but the beauty of a soul, that inner life that reveals itself so seldom, just for an instant, and only if you look closely and learn to see with an open heart.

When she discovers that her father is planning to marry her off to the butcher, a man 20 years her senior, Maude decides to run away. After years of wanting to see the world and all it has to offer, she takes the train to Paris. She envisions herself working in a shop, and being the independent young woman that was becoming popular in the late 19th century. But with no references and her village upbringing, her dreams are soon dashed.

Desperate for work, she finds herself applying for a job with Monsieur Durandeau. Once she discovers that she was hired as a repoussoir, an ugly women rented by high society women in order to make themselves look better, she is rightfully horrified and humiliated. She leaves and tries to find “honest” work but when things get desperate she finds herself on Durandeau’s doorstep once more asking for the job.

She is hired by the Countess Dubern, to be her daughter’s companion through the Season. The Countess hopes that by having Maude next to Isabelle will only work to highlight Isabelle’s beauty and help catch a husband.

This was more of a quiet story than a slow one. Not much really happens plot wise. It is much more just Maude slowly getting caught up in the world of high society and her internal conflict. But that didn’t stop me from reading it really quickly. I love when books remind me that they don’t have to be non-stop action to be enjoyable.

So much emphasis on beauty in society, whether today or in 1888. That has not, and probably will never, change. And most stories are told from the POV of the beautiful. Yeah they might consider themselves plain, but there are always people there to remind them how special they are. But not Maude. She is plain, and has it pointed out to her on a daily basis. (although if you put a picture of a girl on your cover, I automatically assume that that girl is the MC, so Maude is far from plain).

I felt for Maude though. I understood her shame, but was also happy how she never really lost her dreaming spirit. Even when I wanted to shake her to remind her of her situation so she wouldn’t get hurt, I kept rooting for her. I wanted her to have a better life; the life she deserved. I enjoyed seeing how Maude’s opinions changed and shifted over the course of Season.

I was much more interested in Isabelle’s character though. She doesn’t really go through character development so much as we see the already developed layers of her character unfold. Like Maude she doesn’t wish to be married off to the highest bidder and fights her mother’s will for a successful Season. She has her own dreams, and like with Maude, I wanted to see those come true.

The ending wrapped up very neatly, which sometimes I have an issue with, but not this time. It was just so wonderful and I don’t think I could have asked for a better ending for all these women.

The writing was beautiful. It was so descriptive and I felt as if it really brought 19th century Paris to life. As much as I enjoyed reading about the “Season”, I wish there had been more focus on the Bohemian aspect then on high society. The discussions of art and music were an added bonus and it actually made me want to learn more about the culture of the period.

And, another bonus is that this story is very light on the romance. It is always refreshing to find a book in which the plot survives if you remove the romance entirely.

So if you’re looking for a low-key, character driven historical novel that is light on romance, I recommend you give this a shot.

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