Today, I'm reviewing Elizabeth Ross's Belle Epoque. This is a beautiful, daring piece of work from a debut author, and there’s a magic to it that will capture your heart and mind.
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published June 11th 2013 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers (first published June 1st 2013)
1) The dominance of the YA dystopian novel is finally subsiding, and
2) Stand-alone YA contemporaries and YA historical works are being touted as the next big thing.
When I read the synopsis for Belle Epoque in 2012, I knew that number two had to be true. I both read a lot of YA books in the past couple of years, but nothing I've read was as unique as what Belle Epoque’s synopsis purported to be.
So after a lot of shameless begging – thank you for not laughing at us! – Random House kindly sent me a beautiful bound manuscript for me to read.
Maude has dreams of working in a shop, selling clothes or delicatessens to Parsians, but quickly learns that without a reference or the necessary accouterments, she won’t be able to find a job.
So she takes on the only job that she can find: joining an agency that provides repoussoirs for the societal elite.
As a repoussoir, Maude is a foil; a plain, unattractive ornament that is used to garnish already beautiful debutantes. By appearing in public with them, Maude will only emphasize their beauty and their grace.
Maude is deemed to be the perfect foil for Isabelle, the headstrong daughter of the wealthy Countess Dubern. However, as Maude begins to form a true friendship with Isabelle, she begins to find herself at odds with what her job requires, and what her heart believes.
Things that worked:
For a book that’s very character-driven, it’s important to state outright that Ross’s primary and secondary characters are like miniature works of art. They’re rich, vibrant and bold, all serving as the brush strokes to create the final story.
As the main character, Maude is a wonderful study in contrasts. She’s often shy and unsure about herself – especially when it comes to her appearance and her interactions with higher society – but she can also be gutsy, headstrong and opinionated when the moment calls for it.
Ross does a fantastic job of capturing Maude’s voice, and showing the reader just how she begins to evolve after taking on her job as a foil. She’s tougher and more willing to believe in herself, but she’s also more arrogant; she desperately wants to believe that she’s not destined to be the so-called ugly friend for the rest of her life.
As for the secondary characters, they’re all well sketched-out in their own right.
Though we don’t necessarily get to spend a lot of time with the other repoussoirs from the agency, the details that Ross does include shows us that they too are women who have fallen into this profession by circumstance, but still want to believe that they have more to offer society than their so-called lack of looks.
Ross does such a wonderful detail of adding those necessary details that make us invested in their triumphs and heartbreaks, and cheer when they finally get their happy ending.
* The romance
While there is something of a love triangle in Belle Epoque,, I highly appreciated the fact that Ross made sure that the both men played second fiddle to Maude’s personal journey. She daydreams about them and admires them, but she never lets its get in the way of her job and her responsibilities.
In many ways, the inclusion of both Paul and the Duke are actually used to emphasize Maude’s growth and developing worldliness as she serves as a repoussoir.
Without giving spoilers away, Ross crafts a wonderfully understated scene in the latter half of the book where Maude, after receiving some surprising news about one of the young men she’s admired, realizes that everything she’s assumed about him was merely a projection of her own desires.
She connects this back to her own role as a repoussoir and how she’s made assumptions about individuals like her colleagues at the agency, and has allowed others to make assumptions about her as well. It’s very much a eureka moment for her, and Ross plays it beautifully.
* Isabelle’s relationship with Maude
The friendship between Isabelle and Maude was definitely my favorite part of the book.
Even though they were from opposite ends of the social spectrum, they just worked together in a way that seemed effortless. They each had faults, hang-ups and issues, which the other helped to compensate.
I especially loved the fact that Isabelle never seemed to look down upon Maude’s lack of education. Instead, she just assumes that Maude is as capable of accomplishing what she has in academia, which helps Maude gain the confidence to overcome her previous hurdles about her background.
At the same time, I enjoyed watching Maude buoy and support Isabelle’s ambitions. She’s the one person who’s not going to be impressed by Isabelle’s status or morning, and can give her an opinion that is genuine and true.
* Paris, as a character
Like some of the greatest French writers in history, Ross does a spectacular job of incorporating the city of Paris into her story as its own character.
From Maude’s first harsh, unforgiving introduction to the city, to the jeweled, accessories-laden homes of the societal elite on the Right Bank, the city lives and breathes right along with Maude, as she slowly becomes who she’s meant to be.
Ross has clearly done her research about what Paris was like during the period, and relays it in Belle Epoque spectacularly. As someone who actually used to live in Paris, I felt like I could perfectly see everything that she was describing.
* The plot, and the bigger issues.
Whereas the majority of YA books will have the standard theme of the hero or heroine discovering something positive about themselves – whether it’s a superpower, intellectual capability, etc. - Belle Epoque focuses on the supposedly worst aspects of our heroine, and puts her in a position where people are able to profit off of those traits.
It’s absolutely morally repugnant, and we feel every hurt, every ashamed thought, and every disgusted moment that Maude experiences when working for the agency.
But at the same time, we also feel greater joy and greater success, whenever Maude does something that shows that she’s not defined by her looks or her status in life. Without spoiling the plot, Ross’s daring start does reap greater rewards.
* The ending
As someone who’s studied quite a bit of French literature over the years, I thought that Ross’s ending was wonderfully executed and very genre appropriate.
The idea that Maude loses everything and must rebuild again, and she does so with grace and an eye toward her future, shows just how much she’s grown within the scope of the novel. It also proves definitively, that she – and others like her –should never be judged merely by their face.
Things that didn't work:
I recommend Belle Epoque for fans of YA and adult historical novels, but I also recommend this book for readers who read some spectacular writing and want an unusual, imperfect heroine to root for.
Get this book – you won’t regret it!
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of Belle Epoque from Random House, in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!
About the author:
Her debut novel, BELLE EPOQUE, will be published in June, 2013 from Delacorte Press/Random House. She is currently at work on a new novel set in 1940’s Los Angeles. Elizabeth is represented by Brenda Bowen of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates.