BELLE EPOQUE by Elizabeth Ross
jacket flap blurb
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 had 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.
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.
An engaging story that hovers between fantasy and historical fiction, with the fantasy element being the existence of the “Durandeau Agency. I found the beginning a bit hard to get into, mainly because I didn’t quite understand the protagonist’s, Maude’s, motivations as clearly as I did later on. In the beginning, she answers the Durandeau ad without knowing what the work is. She assumes it will be like any other poor, working-class job. Instead, she finds the Agency head and recruit scrutinizing her physical flaws before offering her the job. She learns that the Agency looks for girls who are ugly or plain (like her) so that they may be sold as companions to the rich in order to make those rich clients look better by comparison.
Despite the fact that the pay is much more than she was making beforehand, and despite that the work is less physically demanding, Maude almost doesn’t take the job. Why? Because she can’t stand being seen as ugly. She doesn’t want people searching out her flaws, picking over her like she’s the ugly duckling they want to adopt to turn themselves into a beautiful swan. At first I thought Maude was being very superficial. I mean, in her previous job, she didn’t make enough money for decent meals (or any meals, at times) and could barely scrape enough together to pay rent in the cheapest part of Paris. Why would she take that life over having enough money to buy meals and pay rent, if the only issue is they criticize her appearance?
But the more I moved forward, the more Maude’s reactions made sense, and the likable she became. Maude fled an awful arranged marriage (old, cruel butcher) and a nasty father to go for her and her mother’s dreams of living in Paris. In her old home town, she overheard the other citizens talking about her, about how plain she was and too bad she didn’t inherit her mother’s looks and that butcher’s a piece of work but really she should be thankful ‘cause it’s the best she’s gonna be able to do. Maude’s objection is not being labeled ugly in of itself, but the worthlessness implied from the label. For her, someone pointing out her flaws is near equivalent to them questioning her reason to exist.
There were other characters I liked as well, such as Marie-Josée and Isabelle and Paul. Particularly Marie-Josée (another worker at the Durandeau Agency), who’s as charismatic on the page as she is the story. Maude and Isabelle are the best characters, of course. They are complex and realistic and despite occasionally doing dislikable things, understandable and relatable. The two main good-guy side characters, Marie-Josée and Paul, they were less fleshed-out, as was the Countess Dubern (Isabelle’s mother, one of two main antagonists) and Cécile (worker at the Durandeau Agency, dislikes Maude).
I would have liked to see more of Paul, as he is Maude’s love interest and we learn very little about him. At some points he didn’t even feel necessary to the story, even though he really was as it’s his influence that allows Maude to realize what she finds desirable about the world of the rich is not the money or multitude of things, it’s their access and ability to purchase and surround themselves with art. This revelation is caused in a large part by Paul’s art, and his thoughts on the interconnectedness of art. Isabelle is interested in photography, yes, but she’s interested in the logical, scientific side of it. Paul and Maude both lean towards the artistic, creative side to it. They are less about the magic of the process and more about how the result impacts the viewer.
Considering he’s so important, we see very little of him and obtain even less knowledge. He has a personality, but that’s real all. Either he needs to have more “screentime” (so to speak) or he needs to have less—his role as a love interest needs to be dissolved and his other roles taken over by one- or two-scene background characters. So that Maude’s revelation is not connected to a specific person, and, instead, comes together because of her personal experiences and a few choice words from a random passerby.
I mean, the biggest impact he has on the story his the scene in the museum, where he connects music to painting and talks about the muse. This does not have to be done by the same man she meets earlier, and then later on. Her reason for instigating the talk is that she knows Paul, yes, but it doesn’t have to be that way. He could instigate the talk with her. He could be rambling for herself and she accidentally inserts herself into the conversation because she thinks he’s talking to her. Or something completely different. The point is, Paul’s character is bland. Either he needs some spices, or the size of his portion needs to be cut down.
Marie-Josée felt real despite the limited knowledge shared about her, so even though she isn’t as complete as Maude or Isabelle, I think she fulfills her role in the story in a believable way; she doesn’t seem like a cardboard character.
The plot itself is engaging and complex without being overly complicated. Despite a large portion of the book being about political marriage matches, there is almost no politicking whatsoever. There is some French used, but it’s not distracting and the meaning is generally clear. The climax comes very near to the end of the book, but the resolution was satisfying and well-written, and I can’t think of any subplots that were left hanging.
rating out of five stars
The multi-layered characters and plot make this a book to put on the to-read shelf.
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