Belle Epoque

Written by Elizabeth Ross
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

Sixteen-year-old Maude Pichon, daughter of a Breton shopkeeper, has always dreamed of life outside her small village. In a desperate attempt to avoid an unwanted marriage, she escapes to Paris and unexpectedly finds herself working as a laundress to survive. When she comes across a vague ad promising undemanding work for young ladies, she immediately applies. She is horrified when she discovers the nature of the job, but continues with it nonetheless of necessity.

The Durandeau Agency employs repoussoirs – unattractive young women to set alongside otherwise unremarkable women, creating an illusion of beauty. This service is all the rage among upperclass society, and provides Maude with a recurring role that will forever change her outlook on life, love, and friendships. Hired as a companion to a client’s unwitting daughter for her first Season, Maude must withhold her true identity while pushing her new friend in the direction her mother demands. Loyalties are tested and outlooks are examined while Maude finds her true self in the girl others deem ugly.

Beyond Maude’s emotional journey, this novel includes many other interesting facets, such as political views, class bias, and the process of photography in its infancy. It is set in France’s opulent Belle Epoque era and parallels the building of the Eiffel Tower, which becomes a central part of the story. This is an excellent cross-genre read that many will appreciate for its themes on how young women view themselves and the world around them.