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Belle Epoque

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  • Posted July 5, 2013

    Belle Epoque , the debut novel by Elizabeth Ross was not the boo

    Belle Epoque , the debut novel by Elizabeth Ross was not the book that I was expecting to read when I opened it. I allowed myself to be misled by the synopsis and thought that I was getting a Cinderella/Ugly Duckling story. I am so glad that I was mistaken.

    Maude Pichon was a girl who ran away from an arranged marriage in the north of France (yes, I had to cheat to see where Brittany actually was, geographically speaking) to the glitz, glamour, and beauty of Paris. The book opens with Maude learning that the world is a much bigger place than she ever imagined. Despite grabbing what she believed to be a large amount of money from the till at her father's store, she quickly finds that life in the big city is expensive and cruel. In order to make ends meet in the most undemanding way possible, she finds herself working as a repoussoir - an ugly individual hired to make the employer more attractive by comparison. She is initially against the degrading work, but finds herself playing a poor country cousin debutante for the Parisian social "season".

    Before I say anything else, I want to touch upon how beautifully Ross crafted the setting of the novel. I felt like I was deep in the narcissism of nineteenth century Paris, surrounded by class division, worship of beauty, obsession of art, and derision of the new (like the mid-constructed Eiffel Tower). I've never been to Paris in person, but I felt like I had almost been there while experiencing it with Maude in Belle Epoque .

    I had a lot of respect for Maude doing what was necessary to survive on her own terms, far away from her comfort zone. Though she did thought being a repoussoir was distasteful, she did her job to the very best of her ability. Her treatment of her unknowing "charge", Isabelle, also made me think higher of Maude. She managed to stay true to herself in the face of Paris' intoxication, having few missteps.

    I think Belle Epoque is a book that speaks volumes about society, despite being set more than a century ago. It analyzes what it means to be beautiful, and where the importance of it should fall in comparison to other things such as self-respect, honesty, friendship, and loyalty. I think Elizabeth Ross did the very best possible thing with the book by not turning it into a fairy tale. Maude was treated as a real girl, with real issues, with who twenty-first century teens can easily relate.

    I recommend Belle Epoque to anyone who is looking for a heroine who strives to make her life her own or enjoys reading historical fiction that comes across very realistically. While being a young adult novel, I think it can also appeal to adult readers with it's beautiful setting. I look forward to reading more works by Elizabeth Ross in the future.

    *To satisfy FTC guidelines, I am disclosing that I received an advance copy of the book briefly for reviewing purposes through DAC ARC Tours in exchange for an honest review. The book was likely provided to the tour by the publisher or author, which has in no way affected the outcome of my review. All opinions expressed are rambling, honest, and completely my own.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2013

    Unique-highly recommended

    What a unique subject-repousser(ugly women). Inspired from a story written by an 18th century writer Emile Zola. Ugly women (repousser) are hired by the aristicratic belles to make them stand out. So, they are noticed by future spouses. I enjoyed reading this book.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 27, 2015

    more from this reviewer

    When Maude Pichon ran away to Paris she expected a brand new lif

    When 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, The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason, The Bride's Farewell by Meg Rosoff, I Rode A Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Lee Wilson

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2013


    This is an extremely beautiful book that I have no quips with. It explains Paris like a dream to me, and makes me yearn to fall back into history and live among the Parisians. Note that I've never really cared about Paris or ever going there, but it makes me ache that these people and their lives that no longer exist within modern society today.

    When the book opens, I really felt for the main character, Maude -- a plain looking girl who is just trying to earn an honest day's living. At first I wondered why she wouldn't take a job as a repoussoir if she was so poor. But would anyone want to take a job where you would constantly be told how ugly you are in comparison to a beautiful person? Think about how that would work among Hollywood socialities, to rent an ugly person for a day so that they may appear pretty?

    What I love about this is the writing and how simple it is with all of its layers and complexities. Mrs. Ross has woven a beautiful story about the beauty and ugliness of the rich juxtaposed regular people trying to look in from the outside. Both the rich and poor have good qualities to them; both have their ugly sides. I love the balance the author proposes through Maude's eyes and how everything in this novel has a purpose to it.

    If you like shows like Downton Abbey, I believe you will love this book. I encourage Mrs. Ross to continue writing, Lord knows we need all the good books we can get considering how many terrible bad ones I've read. Please, please continue writing. Thank you!

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