Belle Epoque: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth RossWhen Maude Pichon ran away to Paris she expected a brand new life far away from her provincial home in Brittany and her overbearing father. Instead, her money is running out and work is harder to find than she had imagined.

But Eiffel’s unsightly tower keeps climbing higher as construction continues buoying Maude’s perseverance. Paris is her city and she will find her place in it.

An add seeking girls for easy work seems innocent enough. Until Maude realizes exactly what kind of work she is meant to do. Working as a repoussoir Maude, with her plain face and ugly features, is meant to make real young women of society look more attractive.

The work repels Maude in a visceral way. But with bills to pay and desperation slinking closer, she takes the job with few expectations. Working in secret as a repoussoir, Maude slowly begins to befriend her client. Soon, Maude herself begins to lose track of her lies and where–in the midst of so much luxury–her real life actually lies in Belle Epoque (2013) by Elizabeth Ross.

Belle Epoque is Ross’ first novel and a finalist for the Morris Award for debut authors which is given by YALSA.

Ross’ writing is a delight as she brings 1888 Paris to life on the page with evocative scenes that are sure to dazzle. The book itself is stunning with an elaborate design fitting of the period as well as a beautiful cover (and a surprise under the dust jacket of the hardcover) that while deceptive in some ways is also very in keeping with the theme of beauty that runs through the novel.

Maude’s journey is a realistic one that many young people striking out on their own will find familiar. Her evolving conceptualizing of her own looks and her own worth without or without physical beauty is fascinating. The message here, to quote an old cliche, reminds readers with varying degrees of finesse that beauty is only skin deep.

While it is never meant with malice of any kind, the fixation throughout the story on looks and weight (Maude’s best friend at the repoussoir agency is overweight) began to feel uncomfortable as readers are reminded at every single appearance of a character’s flaws. Again, this technique reflects Maude’s own perceptions but that motif doesn’t make it easier to process.

Unfortunately, the pacing did not enhance Maude’s coming into her own or add much to the story. Instead Maude plods through a variety of beautiful parties and events before taking a hard fall that is broadcast for most of the story. At one point Maude also seeks to “debrief” a friend–a valuable activity but one that didn’t go by that name until 1945.

There are moments of ugliness and beauty in Maude’s story and Ross looks on all aspects of the plot with a careful eye and rich prose. That said, plot and premise aside, the thing that really shines throughout Belle Epoque is Maude herself–a lovely heroine in a story ripe for discussion to say the least.

Possible Pairings: Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Hard Times by Charles Dickens, Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher, The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason, The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff, Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, I Rode A Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Lee Wilson

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