Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross
Published: 2013, Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
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“In Paris, everything’s for sale: wise virgins, foolish virgins, truth and lies, tears and smiles.”
- “Rentafoil,” Emile Zola
So begins Emile Zola’s short story “Les Repoussoirs” (“Rentafoil” in English), which tells the story of how Monsieur Durandeau creates a business through commodifying beauty. He notices the many struggles that women undergo in order to appear their best, through clothing and hairstyles and expensive jewelry. While so many businesses catered towards making attractive women more attractive, no businesses direct their services to those less attractive women. Durandeau therefore positions himself to fill that void by forming a business where ugly women help beautify their prettier (and wealthier) patrons.
Although this review will focus on Elizabeth Ross’ historical fiction novel Belle Epoque, her book is heavily influenced by Zola’s short story, so I first wanted to put it into context. Ross slightly modernizes the time period: her story takes place at the end of the nineteenth century, instead of the mid-nineteenth century. But Ross essentially adopts Zola’s idea and expands upon it. Fortunately, I was made aware of the influence Zola’s short story had on Belle Epoque before I read this, so that I could first read Zola’s story. Ross credits Zola for the inspiration in a note at the end, but I do wish that influence was made more apparent earlier on in the book. I encourage other readers to read Zola’s very brief short story before Ross’ book.
After hearing that her father wishes to marry her off to the much-older butcher of their provincial French town, Maude Pichon decides to run away and start a new life in Paris, city of dreams and possibilities. Unfortunately, Paris is also an expensive city and as her savings dwindle Maude becomes desperate for work. This desperation leads her to Monsieur Durandeau’s agency in answer to an ad asking for “young women wanted for undemanding work.” Although at first she spurns a job offer based entirely on her “plainness,” Maude soon realizes that no other jobs can compete with with Durandeau offers: beautiful dresses, high-society events, lavish meals, days spent accompanying the wealthy about town. And so Maude reluctantly becomes a repoussoir.
Good timing lands Maude a regular position as the companion to Countess Dubern’s daughter Isabelle. The countess needs all the help she can get for her daughter’s first season, and hiring a repoussoir is just one of the many steps she takes to ensure that her daughter will end the season with a marriage offer. Maude becomes the employee of the countess, Isabelle unaware that Maude is anything but a family friend’s distant relation. Neither of them expected a friendship to form. As Maude starts seeing Isabelle as more than a spoiled rich girl, however, she’s faced with the conflicting loyalties.
I am always interested in a story that encourages a discussion on beauty and the different roles it plays in society. This makes up the heart of Belle Epoque and this is where the story really shines. Maude initially turns down an offer with Durandeau’s agency and is shocked that the women allow themselves to be so degraded. Whenever a customer requests a repoussoir for the day, all the women are forced to line up, allowing Durandeau to discuss with the potential customer each of their flaws. Maude is unique in that she’s considered more plain than ugly, but she also falls prey to the sense of hopelessness and lack of self-worth that all the repoussoirs feel. In this story about those oppressed by their apparent lack of beauty, Ross is able to really examine different constructs of what beauty is and how people view it.
I read that a large part of the reason that Ross decided to have her story take place in Belle Epoque Paris was due to the historical context that the World Exposition and Eiffel Tower provided. Although the parallels between the places that both it and “ugly” women occupy in Paris are fairly heavy-handed, I still enjoyed this added context to the book’s main discussion on beauty conventions. Taking into account the sense of romance and nostalgia that images of the Eiffel Tower have in our current society, Ross’ purpose in including the original disdain and ill-will that the Parisians initially have towards its creation becomes very clear.
Besides the discussion of beauty conventions, Belle Epoque is also a wonderfully compelling story of a friendship developed between two girls who occupy very different worlds. Physically and economically, Maude and Isabelle are nothing alike. And yet, their hopes and dreams allow them to discover things about themselves and each other that they are too afraid to otherwise admit. Isabelle is the more dynamic character, fighting against the chokehold of societal expectations. She doesn’t care about propriety, about looking beautiful, about finding a husband; instead, she wants to attend the university and study science. While reading this story, I found myself wondering what it would have been like to have Isabelle as narrator. In comparison to Isabelle, Maude is more timid, less confident in what she wants to do with her life. And yet Maude becomes a more relatable character over time, gaining both confidence and self-worth. It was so rewarding to witness how their friendship and trust in one another allows each girl to ultimately take control of her own life.
Through a critique on beauty, societal standards, and the place of women, among other things, I found Ross’ decision to include a romance, sweet as it is, to be a little disappointing. Nothing is technically wrong with Maude’s growing attraction for Paul, an aspiring musician from the lower class. At times, Paul’s character seems to function as a moral compass for Maude, reminding her that beauty is more than skin-deep, and also that it’s okay for her to want better things with her life. As I said before, their romance is sweet, but I do think that Isabelle and the other repoussoirs could have just as easily helped Maude come to that ultimate conclusion.
A few nitpicky issues aside, I found Belle Epoque to be a well written work of fiction. Besides the parts about the Eiffel Tower and mentions of living situations, I didn’t a super strong sense of the historical time period, but that ultimately isn’t what this story is about. Belle Epoque addresses timeless issues concerning beauty as a superficial means of status. I enjoyed the discourse on beauty, and I absolutely loved the focus on Maude and Isabelle’s friendship. Highly encouraged for fans of historical fiction who are looking for a more unconventional type of story.
Rating: 4.5 stars