Who says being ugly is a turn-off? For Maude Pichon, a runaway from Brittany in Elizabeth Ross’s BELLE EPOCHE, set in late-19th century France, it’s her biggest asset. Maude fled an arranged marriage with the town butcher to come to Paris, but she’s found that making it in the big city is harder than she ever dreamed it would be. After casting off a job as a laundress, Maude joins the Durandeau Agency, where Monsieur Durandeau provides society women with ugly girls as “friends.” These repoussoirs, or “those who repel,” serve as foils to their clients, and make them look more beautiful in comparison.
"Ross personifies the Belle Epoque, the “Beautiful Age” of French history and culture, with every stroke of her pen."
This “rent-a-companion” philosophy seems to work for the lower-class girls that Maude meets. Her closest friend, the jolly and witty Marie-Josée, loves the job, which provides her with opportunities to travel to parts of Paris that she wouldn’t get to see otherwise. Maude finds it difficult to adjust to being defined solely by her appearance --- or lack thereof. She’s trained in courtly graces, but also in self-reliance against the upper crust of society. Her instructor, Madame Girard, coaches the girls on insulting one another, so they are not hurt when a client picks one of them out of a line-up and comments on their looks.
Maude finds herself in the dubiously lucky position of getting a long-term client right away. She’s paired up with Isabelle Dubern, the seemingly spoiled daughter of a countess, who possesses luxuries Maude could never dream of. Isabelle is getting ready for her first “season,” in which she makes her formal entrée into society and begins her search for a husband. Countess Dubern dresses Maude in clothes designed to make her look mousy in comparison to Isabelle; Maude becomes Isabelle’s shadow. However, Isabelle doesn’t know that her new friend is a repoussoir, hired to make her look good.
Once Isabelle thinks she’s found a friend in Maude, she begins to open up, revealing a young woman like any other her age. She hopes for a marriage made from true love, not constructed for a familial alliance, and sometimes resents her beautiful mother and often-absent father. Maude becomes privy to the innermost thoughts of Isabelle’s mind --- and to the inner workings of Paris society. But all good things must come to an end...including Maude’s time as the hired help. Will true friendship stand the test of time (and lies), or will Isabelle return to her silk-clad world while Maude moves on to her next client?
Ross personifies the Belle Epoque, the “Beautiful Age” of French history and culture, with every stroke of her pen. The reader will travel with the characters from the Louvre, where Maude muses on the great masterpieces of Western art, to the cafés of Paris where musicians warble a tune and to the majestic ballrooms where dancing slippers tap out waltz after waltz. Dive into Maude’s world and get a glimpse of friendships and loyalties tested against the backdrop of glorious Paris.
Reviewed by Carly Silver on June 3, 2013
- Publication Date: October 14, 2014
- Genres: Young Adult 12+
- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Ember
- ISBN-10: 0385741472
- ISBN-13: 9780385741477