When Maude Pichon runs away from provincial Brittany to Paris, her romantic dreams vansih 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 adornment of plainness.
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.
Inspired by a short story written by Emilie Zola, Belle Epoque is set at the height of bohemian Paris, when the city was at the peak of decadence, men and women were at their most beautiful, and morality was at its most depraved.
Desperate for a living, Maude Pichon, a runaway from Brittany, seeks work the Durandeau Agency. Unlike her laundress job, she is not required to do hard labor. All she has to do is blend into high society and use her “plain” looks to augment her client’s good looks. She is immediately hired by the Countess Dubern to befriend her daughter, Isabelle, (acting as a spy for the countess) and encourage her to marry a good-standing man. Isabelle, however, has other plans: she wants to become a university scholar. Maude, ignoring her friend’s advice, tries to be a true friend to Isabelle while also pleasing the countess. How long can she perform this balancing act?
I liked Elizabeth Ross’ Belle Epoque. The build-up to Maude’s coming to work at the Agency is perfect. It shows she has some self-respect. The plot line was otherwise predictable. Girl is hired to be friends with another girl, the former girl balances her job with true friendship, the secret is revealed, the girl’s reputation is ruined. I like the positive resolution, but my pessimistic self wanted the book to end with her never really resolving the betrayal to Isabelle. The reason for the title comes to light in the last chapter.
Most of Maude’s character development is her perception of beauty. Maude struggles to find the balance between friendship and employment, as her job is dependent on this fabricated friendship. She also deludes herself into believing she is part of the upper crust of society rather than one of the agency girls. I didn’t see much character development with the other characters.
Now for the appearance of the e-book. I like the floral design on the cover, which also appears at the start of each chapter. The problem with the floral is that there was little mention of flowers, not even the language of flowers in society. I don’t like having this portrait on the cover. If I had a say in cover design, I would have asked for the photograph to at least be in black and white for Maude and Isabelle’s love of photography.
Grammatically, the only errors I saw were two or three instances of missing periods. I would have also liked a translation for some of the French so I didn’t have to rely on Google Translate. The most that’s stated is a difference in formal and informal please because of an event between a maid and a viscount-to-be. Either include the translations after the French, or have the translations at the end.
Two themes are clear in this book: it is immoral to make money on others’ perceptions ugliness, and true friendship is more important than a job.
What kept Belle Epoque from reaching the full four stars was its predictable ending, its development of only one character (Maude), and its lack of a French glossary. I recommend this novel about beauty and and morality to those who like historical fiction taking place in France.
Genres: Historical fiction, YA
Rating: 3.5 out of 5