Paid For Looking Plain in 19th Century Paris

S'il vous plaît…do not judge the young adult novel Belle Epoque by its lovely cover art.  Or by the note underneath the title that it is “a novel of beauty and betrayal”.  To anyone picking up this book for the first time, the glamorous and pensive young woman on the cover – likely Maude, our heroine – and the note may give the mistaken impression that the novel is light-weight.  This is not the case.

 Belle Epoque is a very original and at the same time highly readable book for which its author, Elizabeth Ross, has just earned William C. Morris YA [Young Adult] Debut honors from the American Library Association.  These honors are given annually to “impressive new voices in young adult literature”. 

The year is 1888 and Maude Pichon is a sixteen-year-old from the Brittany region of France.  She has just moved to Paris to escape her father’s probable plans of marrying her off to the local much older and decidedly un-charming butcher.  It is a thrilling time to be in Paris. The Left Bank art scene is vibrant and the Eiffel Tower is being constructed in preparation for the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair).
Desperate to make ends meet, Maude takes a position as a repoussoir at the Durandeau Agency.  Repoussoirs serve as “beauty foils” for the wealthy who can afford to hire them.  The basic idea is that a plain woman is paid through the agency to accompany a wealthy woman on social outings, with the idea that the former woman’s plainness will make the latter woman appear more attractive in contrast.  Author Ross notes that she was inspired to write her novel after reading a short story about this slightly horrifying concept by Emile Zola called Les Repoussoirs (1866).

Not surprisingly, Maude often finds her work repugnant and degrading.  However, she also becomes close friends with Isabelle, the daughter of her main client, who is also instrumental in helping Maude discover her passion for photography.  The unusual aspect of this friendship, though, is that Isabelle does not know that her mother has hired Maude as Isabelle’s beauty foil.  Maude becomes quite caught up in the world of her wealthy client and in doing so risks ruining her friendships with Isabelle and two others, including Paul, a young musician to whom she is drawn.    
I strongly recommend Belle Epoque to both teens and adults for its unique premise, Maude’s thoughtful narration of her experience and the novel’s thought-provoking treatment of its theme of beauty.  Ross approaches this theme from various angles, including whether physical beauty can ever be judged objectively and how our self-image – fueled by the positive and negative feedback that we receive from others -- can affect our motivation to move forward toward our goals.  Maude grows significantly during the novel, noting at one point that with her photography she wishes to capture “not the classical beauty of symmetry and exact proportions,” but rather “the beauty of a soul, that inner life that reveals itself so seldom, just for an instant, and only if you look closely and learn to see with an open heart”.  In our appearance-obsessed culture it is impossible not to identity with Maude on some level.  Reader, you will root for her all the way.  

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