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Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Twins on "Thursday": Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

"The Twins on Thursday" is reserved for the Twins' joint reviews. It is a special feature of our blog that discusses books that we either both like, dislike, or have mixed feelings about. This is also the day where we post reviews for books (and ARCs/Galleys) that have been sent to us by authors/galley sites/publishing houses. And because we don't believe much in uniformity, we'll be trying to mix things up a bit by adding random stuff in relation to our review (well, mostly for books we purchased anyway).

Title: Belle Epoque
Author: Elizabeth Ross
Format Acquired: eARC
Publication Date: June 11, 2013
Publishing House: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (Random House)
ISBN: 9780385741460
Source of Copy: Given by author via NetGalley


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. 

(Image, summary and information courtesy of Goodreads)


Maude has decided to take control of her life by running away from her father's shop and equally horrendous marriage prospect. Paris is beautiful, glitzy, and breathing with art and life, but Maude comes face to face with a different aspect of it. Taken in by the opportunist Durandeau, she becomes one of the many repoussoirs of the agency, an accessory used by the creme de la creme to make themselves look good. Aside from being the plain jane companion to Isabelle, the countess' daughter who has other plans for herself, Maude is tasked to coerce her into accepting a marriage proposal befitting of her lineage. But when the fraudulent companionship blossoms into a real friendship and Maude realizes that the parallels between her and Isabelle are superficial at best, Maude has to step back and chip away at the blinding glitter and glam to discover who she really is and what she really wants from her life.

Maude is an engaging and realistic heroine, struggling to survive in Paris. She's not proud of her job but she's got to do it, how else will she be able to put food on her table? She's also not immune to the exclusivity and the privileges allowed the upper class, she gets to experience them thanks to Isabelle, and she soon finds herself drowning in excess and losing herself to her unrealistic daydreams. It's no wonder that Maude was lured in by all the gorgeous fripperies, dazzling jewelries, and indulgent luxuries displayed by the upper class. Even we were quite drawn in by Ross' intoxicating portrayal of the rich and glamorous. 
The friendship between Maude and Marie-Josie, another repoussoir, was also very endearing. When Durandeau and his minions had the girls tell each other their worst features, Maude and Marie-Josie did the exact opposite, and we wanted to hug them for that. Durandeau was such a cad for trading the girls' dignity for money, and it really is disgusting how his whole establishment fed off of the physical "imperfections" of this women.

Isabelle is different from the other girls. While they're worried about the season, marriage prospects and other female fripperies, she's more interested in logic and science and getting an education. Isabelle is secretly brainy, which is something that she hides from her mother as the latter deems it useless in snaring a worthy son-in-law. We like how sneaky and deviant Isabelle is, and how she clamors for the equality between her and Maude. While Countess Dubern measures the importance of people by the francs they possess, Isabelle just wants a friend she can truly be herself with.

While Belle Epoque mostly focuses on Maude and Isabelle's growing camaraderie, there will always be room for romance, of course. And Maude is paired with Paul, a struggling musician who plays in jazz bars and composes music in his spare time. Her relationship with Paul was stiff. There was actually too little interaction with each other that it didn't give us a sense that there was a real connection between them. 

Ross has also called upon us to reflect on society, and how we are helpless in following the standardized norm we've set up for ourselves. It's not even a discipline, nor is it always an affliction; it's just that we've noticed that the rules and notions that society dictates tend to make us quite lazy and abhorrent to real change. Ross' depiction of society only spurred the fact that we were all trying to cater to a very distorted image of norm standards, to the point that we are all trying to throw each other under the bus just to feel good about ourselves.  We like the girls because they're very determined to shake off the stereotypes society has very well thrust upon them, and we couldn't help but applaud the herculean effort to be different.

Belle Epoque implores self-reflection, all the while opening up your world to excellent historical detail and a voyeuristic peek into 19th century society.