Thursday, February 20, 2014

Belle Epoque

It's Paris in the late 1880s. The Second Empire has fallen. The Eiffel Tower is under construction. And Maude Pichon, a 16-year-old runaway, has come to Paris dreaming of a better life. She ends up as a "repoussoir" instead: a plain girl hired to be a foil to Countess Dubern's prettier daughter, Isabelle, for the season. It's the rage among the rich of Parisian society--this hiring of ugly women to act as companions at society events in order to look more lovely by comparison. And, unhappily, Maude fits that bill.
"Sometimes, when I feel strong, I don't mind being ignored ... but other times I feel wretched. The problem with being a professional wallflower is that you have time to reflect on your own inadequacies, you're constantly reminded of your undesirable status. Just once I'd like a chance to shine."
I didn't expect to love this book as much as I did. And it's not just because it's set in Paris. I really liked the characters. Maude and Isabelle are a study in contrasts. Isabelle is beautiful and rich; Maude is plain and poor. Isabelle dreams of escaping society, attending the Sorbonne, and studying science; Maude dreams of someday belonging to Isabelle's world. Then there's Isabelle's mother, the Countess, who wants her daughter to marry well, and who expects Maude to help her achieve that goal. As a repoussoir, Maude finds herself torn between her job and the Countess's demands, and her growing friendship with Isabelle. I really sympathized with Maude. She's young, and naive, and doing her best to find her way in a very unsympathetic world.
"My role in all this has been to try to please both parties, leading the life of a double agent, keeping secrets from both mother and daughter ... It's exhausting, but I've become used to contorting myself into what people want me to be."
Elizabeth Ross drew inspiration for her novel from the short story "Les Repoussoirs" by Emile Zola, and she does a masterful job. Belle Epoque definitely lives up to its name--this is a beautifully told story of friendship, and beauty, and truth.

5 comments:

  1. This sounds delightful. It brought to mind instantly, the movie Midnight in Paris and the female characters desire to live in the time of the Belle Epoch.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, it's a great time period; and it's in Paris...what more do you need?

      Delete
  2. What a terrible position to be put in! It sounds like a bit of a different spin on the lady-in-waiting story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And so well written! I really enjoyed this book.

      Delete
  3. I have this one on hold at the library. I wasn't familiar with the whole fad of hiring someone plain as a companion in order to look better. I am looking forward to reading this (it's Paris...what's not to love?) Thanks for the tip!

    ReplyDelete