Friday, February 21, 2014

Guest Review: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

Belle Epoque
by Elizabeth Ross
Pub: 6/2013
336 p.

Summary: When Maude Pichon runs away from provincial Brittany to Paris, her romantic dreams vanish 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 foil.
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 the deception continues, the more she has to lose.
Beth's Thoughts: At its heart, this is a story about the nature of beauty. Is beauty something that exists in the appearance of a person, or in the quality of that person's mind and heart? Is beauty ornamental or useful, objective or subjective? These questions are asked by Maude as she tries to make her way in Paris, and are juxtaposed nicely against the backdrop of the building of the Eiffel Tower; many characters see the Tower as ugly and an eyesore, but others praise it for its feats of engineering and see it as beautiful in its own way. The book does seem to answer its own questions, by having the most physically beautiful character be the most black-hearted and mean-spirited person in the book, but to me the book never feels preachy about its morals. Rather, it explores them through Maude's experiences, often exhibiting moral and social truths in contrasting pairs. For example, the obligatory “love triangle” men represent the two worlds that Maude finds herself caught between: the opulent and rigid aristocracy and the artistic and freedom-loving bourgeois. As she learns more about these men, Maude learns more about herself and her place in each of their worlds. Marie-Josee, Maude's friend from work, contrasts Maude's growing friendship with Isabelle while nicely paralleling it. Marie-Josee is maternal and extroverted, while Maude tends to be more self-focused. Isabelle's scientific mindset is such that she and Maude often look at the same things with vastly different approaches. Both of them teach and encourage Maude, and give her something she had been missing in her life until this point. While, through her relationship with Isabelle, Maude finds herself straddling these disparate worlds, eventually she realizes she cannot continue to live in both. It is her discovery of the beauty of her own dreams, and remembering the things that truly matter to her, that allows her to choose the path to her own happiness.

I loved this book. The story is told in first person present tense, which I thought was an interesting choice. It really lets the narrator's voice come through, and Maude is a truly enjoyable narrator. It is easy to identify with her desire to be seen for her true worth rather than to be dismissed as something less worthy. While she often feels defeated by circumstances, Maude never wallows in self pity and she doesn't wait for others to fix her problems for her. There is romance in the book, but that is not the focus of the story, and I really enjoyed that. Maude comes to Paris with a specific goal: she doesn't want to marry the man her father picked, and her artistic soul wants to see more of the world. Yet, knowing so little of the world, she is unsure as to how to direct her passion. I enjoyed going on her journey with her as she explores her options, and ultimately discovers the passion that fills her life with beauty. And, on a personal note, I feel like this book has finally healed my reader's sensibilities from the soul-crushing putrefaction that was Tiger's Curse. Thank you for that, Ms. Ross.

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