Friday, July 5, 2013

YA Historical Fiction: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

Publisher: Delacorte Books
Date: June 11, 2013
Format: ARC
Source: publisher
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 323
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads: 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. But 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 her deception continues, the more she has to lose.

My review: Belle Epoque is based on Emile Zola's 1866 short story "Les Repoussoirs" about the fictional agency of Durandeau. Ross launches off from this story to write the compelling tale of Maude Pichon, a girl struggling to write the story of her own life by moving to Paris in the late 1880s in the midst of the changes to society brought by France's Industrial Revolution and Belle Epoque.

Maude is one of the most candid and realistic heroines I have encountered in a while. There's romantic interest, but it doesn't override the main story, and Maude's slight attraction to multiple boys before one begins to stand out seems much more true to real life than the usual insta-love. While she gets caught up in the opulence of her feigned fashionable life with the Duberns more than would be thought prudent, it fits with Maude's characterization as a provincial girl with overly-romanticized and cheery notions of what her life in Paris will be like. There is no fairy-tale, rather historically-anachronistic instant rise to fame, fortune, or love; the plot seems to take its natural course and suit both the characterizations of the book's key figures and what is realistic for the time period. At the same time, the issues with self-image and self-worth faced by Maude are things that any girl of today's time can easily identify with, making Belle Epoque an engrossing read for both fans of historical fiction and those who prefer more connections to contemporary life.

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