Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross
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.
“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”
In 1902, Edith Wharton published these insightful words, and in 2013, Elizabeth Ross presented them as a preface to her debut novel. As I peeled back the first few pages of Belle Epoque and encountered this quote, I stopped for a moment to think, its truth and connection to my own life ringing in my ears. When it comes to literature, I never create light, never write brilliant books with eloquent speech and inventive plots. However, when I encounter someone who does, I do my best to reflect his or her glow. This is the case with Belle Epoque—it is a beautiful novel, and while I may not have been the candle who created it, I hope to spread its light to other readers.
This novel’s most obvious source of beauty is its rich historical setting, drenched in details of Parisian culture. Just like the protagonist, who flees from Brittany to the capital of her country, I fell into the rush of the city’s art scene and the glamour of the aristocrats’ balls. Ross brought her backdrop to life with meticulous research and imagery, decorating it with the smallest facts about 1800s Paris.
However, the most beautiful aspect of Belle Epoque is its themes of perceived beauty that still resonate today. The agency is almost allegorical, a symbol for our own society. Not only does it push the traditionally ugly down, ridiculing them in front of clients, but it tells the naturally beautiful that even they are not good enough, that they need the company’s services to outshine their friends. While today’s world may not feature beauty foil agencies, it overflows with similar means of engulfing girls in a sense of inadequacy. Almost every reader will relate to Maude’s struggle to feel attractive and see snippets of herself in the wealthy women who will do anything to appear prettier. Even those who do not will be left with plenty to think about, as Belle Epoque poses a plethora of questions: “What does it mean to be pretty?” “Why do we place so much emphasis on beauty?” “How can we overcome society’s obsession with looks?”
The cherry in top of this shining story is its relevant subplots that accentuate its messages about beauty. Ross set her novel against the building of the Eiffel Tower, a calculated choice that gave her the opportunity to show how standards of beauty change with time. While we now view the statue as an icon, a gorgeous symbol of Paris, those who lived during its building considered it a hideous mark on their skyline. Each time a character complains about the structure, readers are reminded how transient beauty ideals can be. Ross also incorporates a budding passion for photography into Maude’s character, allowing the protagonist to discover a love of capturing other people’s attributes. This subplot proves the opening quote true; emphasizing the beauty of others—both physical and otherwise—is as valuable as creating it. Accents like these always indicate that the author and editor put in a little extra effort beyond what was required, and Belle Epoque makes marvelous use of them.
With its absorbing setting and themes that transcend time, Ross’s debut makes my list of favorite historical tales. Belle Epoque is a stunning novel, with or without the help of a beauty foil.