Tuesday 24 September 2013

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

Perfect, just perfect,” says the stout man.  He scrutinizes me, his suit pinching across his rotund torso, and I assume that this is Monsieur Durandeau, but he doesn’t introduce himself. Instead, he walks around me in a circle as I stand still and awkward in the middle of the sitting room.  A faint perfume lingers in the air.  
Perfect: no one has ever described me like that before.
*  *  *
Published by Hot Key Books in September 2013
336 pages
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...
Reviewed by Caroline Hodges
I chose this book for review based on the unusual promise of an ‘ugly’ heroine and the late 1800’s Parisian setting.  It sure sounded like not your typical YA novel and I was pleasantly correct.
Ross’s debut drops us into Maude’s life as she’s just starting out in Paris.  Desperate for a job she signs up with a ‘repoussoir’ agency – where wealthy women hire an ugly companion to amplify their own beauty!  On her first commission, Maude is paired with debutante Isabelle and tasked by her over-bearing mother to do all she can to secure a wealthy husband for her reluctant daughter... but all without Isabelle knowing Maude is a hired repossoir.  Inevitably Maude and Isabelle’s friendship flourishes and Maude finds herself torn between her new found friendship and the objectives of her job.    
It’s very apparent how well-researched the novel has been; allowing us to experience a historical Paris with extremes of wealth and poverty.  Through Maude we know the chapped fingers of a laundress and then the glorious beauty of the rooms and outfits of the upper class.  We also discover just how strong public opinion was against the building of the Eiffel Tower at the time, something I had never expected or even thought about.  
Ross’s heroine is also well crafted and believable.  She is somehow likeable even when she is caught up in the wealth around her and begins to shun her friends.  Somehow you know she will be true to herself and Isabelle.  I found it refreshing that the novel is not an unrealistic rags to riches tale; something I was expecting to be the case.  Instead the moral of the story focuses on beauty, but in all its forms, particularly friendship and courage.  
Whilst I found the novel quite compulsive reading, I found the relationship between musician Paul and Maude a little unrewarding by the end of the book.  There were some really nice moments between them but they were oddly diminished by Maude’s apparent similar reaction to nearly any male she comes across whilst experiencing the Paris ‘season’.  So by the end, I felt that any relationship with Paul would have had the feeling of her ‘settling’ for him rather than any true interest which I think was not Ross’s intention.  I also found the end in general a bit idealistic though it’s hard to tell you why without spoiling anything... but let’s just say every woman and their dog suddenly has decidedly modern ideas on their profession!
Overall though, I liked the book.  The historical side of it is exceptional and the ‘repossoir’ theme unusual.  Ross has a pleasant style of writing and the first person perspective worked well and still manages to give us a good grasp on other characters perceptions of Maude as she goes through her decidedly selfish stage.  Also, I just adore the cover!  Hot Key Books have done a stunner!

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed Belle Époque! It is very well researched and I really liked all the historical bits. Great review!


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