Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: Belle Epoque - Elizabeth Ross

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross
Genre: YA, historical fiction
Published on June 11, 2013
Published by Delacorte Books
Pages: 336
Read From: 9.4.13 - 9.7.13

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. 
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 the deception continues, the more she has to lose.


Cover Blurb: Yes or No? I love, love, love the pretty filigree border. However, not only is there a character impersonator on the front, it also gives the incorrect indication that this is a romance novel. And in fact, the romance is hardly part of the plot.

Characters: Maude Pichon is a girl with big, yet practical, dreams. It's hard to not like her and her wish to be more than what she is. A plain girl who struggles with being accepted for her intelligence or her looks, Maude is also a very easy girl to relate to. It is also very easy to get frustrated with her. We Readers know that she shouldn't trust Countess Dubern, and we Readers know that Maude's attempt to fit in among the higher echelons of society will only end in grief. So when Maude ignores good advice and falls further and further into this new way of life among the Duberns, Readers will experience frustration and disbelief. However, this doesn't lessen Maude's overall good personality and commendable desire to pursue her ambitions. Isabelle Dubern initially came across as a brat - as she was supposed to. I felt that I really was not going to like her. But then, like Maude, I got to know her much better, and Isabelle soon became a strong-willed young woman with her own commendable ambitions. Her and Maude's lack of interest in marriage does not come across as a femi-Nazi "girl power" attitude, but more that marriage simply doesn't fit into their future plans. If it did, they would marry, but it doesn't, so they won't. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Countess Dubern playing the role of the story's villainess, and may I say that she is totally despicable. Every little action and bit of dialogue made me hate her more and more.

The Romance: Surprisingly, there is no love triangle! Maude develops a bit of a crush on the Duke d'Avaray, but the Duke doesn't pay all that much attention to Maude, and Maude thankfully doesn't spend all that much time pining for him. Then there's Paul, a bohemian artist/musician who I didn't mind all that much, though I had difficulty attaching to him in any fashion. He didn't lack personality, but I found nothing especially attention-grabbing about him. The Reader, of course, knows that Paul will represent a love interest, but even this is very gradual and doesn't really make an appearance until the end. In some ways, the romance was almost too subtle in Belle Epoque. But at the same time, I'm glad the story focused on something else.

Plot: When Maude's father plans to marry her off to the local butcher, Maude decides to take matters into her own hands and runs off to Paris. She has no objections to marriage itself, but the butcher is definitely not her idea of a good husband, and she has other interests she wants to pursue in France's grand and modern city. Seeking work, Maude answers an advertisement in the newspaper - an advertisement calling plain and ugly girls to the Durandeau agency. These girls are then hired by society ladies to offset their beauty. An ugly stepsister to enhance the beauty of a debutante, or a silver foil placed behind a jewel. Humiliated at the idea of being hired for her plainness, Maude rejects the job, but it soon forced back to the agency's doors when the need for money becomes greater than her pride. Maude is immediately hired by Countess Dubern to act as her daughter Isabelle's companion for her Season debut. However, Isabelle doesn't know that Maude is a repoussier, and it is Maude's duty not only to become Isabelle's confidante and convince her into accepting a marriage proposal, but also to make sure Isabelle never finds out that Maude actually works for her mother. However, what at first begins as a mere job, soon develops into a real friendship, as Isabelle shares her secret passion for photography and the sciences. Tempted into silence by the Countess Dubern's extravagant gifts of jewels and dresses, and tortured by her secret betrayal to Isabelle, Maude doesn't know what to do. The Countess is desperate for Isabelle to marry the Duke d'Avaray, while Isabelle has plans to attend the Sorbonne and pursue her studies. And Maude is caught in the middle. To disobey the Countess would cut Maude off from the allure of society balls and concerts and pretty things. And to obey her would destroy her friendship with Isabelle. This is a more character-driven than plot-driven story. The plot wholly consists of attending balls, banquets, concerts, and shopping, with Maude struggling with her conscience the entire time. But the backdrop is so rich and the characters so interesting that I happened to love it. This era - 1888 - is one of my absolute favorites, so reading countless pages of social protocol and decadence was a treat for me. Added onto that are characters with strong personalities, stronger ambitions, and interesting backgrounds. Did I also mention that Eiffel's tower is being built?

Believability: Maude and Isabelle, the two main girls, have no real interest in marrying. And many of the other girls in this story have plans other than marriage for their futures. However, as I have said earlier, they do not have an unrealistic attitude for the era. To say that women in 1888 had no dreams beyond marriage is simply not true. 1888 is a year that is right smack in the middle of an era that meant change for society, industry, education - positively everything. Doorways to opened, amazing contraptions were being invented, roadways in medicine and science cleared. And contrary to popular belief, there were a lot of job options open to women. So why do so many people assume that women didn't have dreams beyond marriage? Few probably realized their dreams (depending on their situation in life; higher society women actually had fewer liberties than middle-class), but that doesn't mean they didn't have them. And in fiction, an Author can make them realize their dreams. The other historical details in this book - social protocols, the sort of inventions that existed then, people's general opinion of Eiffel's tower - are all well researched.

Writing Style: First person, present tense. It worked surprisingly well. At times the dialogue had a bit too much of a modern flavor to fit into the era, but it wasn't all that bad. The descriptions were a pure literary feast of beauty and glamour - the Author actually made me fall in love with Paris; a city that I've never been all that enchanted with, not even in a different era.

Content: None.

Conclusion: The end is, perhaps, a bit predictable. We all know Maude's trust in the Countess will end in misery. And we all know that in the end Maude will find her way in the world. Even so, the end has a realistic feel to it. It's not cookie-cutter perfect, and no characters make unrealistic and sudden rises in their stations in life. I expected Belle Epoque to be a historical romance, when I first saw it. So I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be a story about two young women looking for a way to make their own way in the world, and to explore their era's amazing discoveries.

Recommended Audience: Girl-read, fourteen-and-up, great for fans of historical fiction that explore historical facts that aren't very well known.

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