Friday, August 15, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

So, back to historical fiction—young adult historical fiction. I haven’t read a YA historical in a while so it was time. And this was a good one!

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross is an interesting and original look at late 1800's Paris from the point of view of a strong, intelligent young woman named Maude Pichon. Maude, a country girl from Brittany, fled an arranged marriage to a middle-aged butcher to seek the excitement of city life. She wanted to explore what the world had to offer, little understanding the world didn’t offer much to a poor girl except hard labor.

Then she stumbles upon an advertisement from the Durandeau Agency looking for young women for undemanding work. She applies and is offered a job before she knows what she is being hired to do. As soon as she realizes what is expected of her, she is appalled. She is to be a "repoussoir."

Wealthy women who wished to stand out in a crowd would hire foils—companions who were plain to downright ugly. These companions were to accompany them to social events to make them appear more attractive by comparison.

Maude is shocked and hurt to realize she’s unattractive enough to be hired as one of these foils, but she is desperate enough to take the job. She is hired by the cold-hearted Countess Dubern who needs a companion for her daughter, Isabelle.

Isabelle is not so unattractive that she needs a "foil," but Isabelle is headstrong and rebellious and in danger of ruining her own season by insufficient attention to the importance of attracting a husband. Maude is to befriend her, spy on her, and report back to the countess. The countess is paying her. But how far down this path can Maude go?

Paris in the 1880's is a fascinating time, and Maude is in the thick of it. Isabelle, too, is an interesting character with a mind of her own. Maude’s demeaning job and Isabelle’s struggle to lead an independent life despite her mother’s determination to see her appropriately married off demonstrate the difficulties women faced in the nineteenth century. Fiction allows a bit of leeway with the resolutions. You’ll root for these women and their friendship. And it’s Paris.