Publication date: 11 June 2013 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
ISBN 10/13: 0385741464 | 9780385741460
Category: Young Adult Historical
Keywords: Historical, romance, beauty, pride
Format: Hardcover, eBook
Source: e-ARC received from Netgalley, with thanks to the author
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.
Attitudes mingle and clash in Belle Epoque, which follows a destitute young woman as she seeks her fortune in late 19th-century Paris. Mousy country girl Maude Pichon finds city life every bit as dismal and even more precarious as the life she wished to escape--an arranged marriage to the town butcher, twice her age. Desperate to afford food and lodging, she decides to accept a well-paying but ultimately demeaning job, posing as a homely friend to make society girls look more beautiful and desirable in comparison.
Elizabeth Ross's impressionistic touch paints a gay metropolis populated by ambitious artistes and forward-thinking intellectuals as well as self-involved socialites and wastrels. Drawing inspiration from a story by Émile Zola, she juxtaposes not just beauty and ugliness but also wealth with poverty, compassion with cruelty. While the level of intrigue never really reaches a climax, and instead drifts into a quiet and sensible resolution, readers will be captivated by the possibilities presented to Maude by her employment at the Durandeau Agency. As she struggles to reconcile her aspirations for a better life with the harsh realities of her situation, Maude changes and grows; she stumbles and pulls herself up yet again. Though she makes some terrible mistakes, her resilience and integrity help her (as well as the reader) through the rough patches.
I especially liked the ebb and flow of Maude's relationships, not necessarily with male characters (who collectively form the tertiary characters of the tale), but with the women who become her friends and foes throughout the book. Careful observation shows both good and bad sides to each character: the haughty Isabelle, the amiable Marie-Josée, Maude herself who is often laid low by her own presumptiousness; not even the City of Lights escapes this treatment. Throughout the novel Maude rejoices in its opulent salons and lush life, but she goes home to her colorfully squalid neighborhood at day's end. The only woman who can be taken at face value is the Countess, Isabelle's mother, although she serves to make the younger women seem more real and well-rounded.
Belle Epoque is a study in contrasts. A gentle, elegantly-worded read, this would be appropriate for classroom libraries and is sure to provide plenty of discussion points for book clubs. I will definitely pick up a copy of this at Elizabeth's launch party on June 15th!
*I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This, in no way, affected my opinion or review of this book.
www.elizabethrossbooks.com and follow her on Twitter @RossElizabeth.
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