Emilienne: A Novel of Belle Époque Paris

Written by Pamela Binnings Ewen
Review by Caroline D. Wilson

Émilienne revives the story of the late-19th century Parisian courtesan Émilienne D’Alençon. Desperate to escape her life of poverty in Paris’s Montmartre, eighteen-year-old Émilienne embarks on a courageous journey to join the glittering demimonde. The scrappy girl will do anything to find love and success, but as she rises to stardom, she is confronted with the reality of a life built on beauty and desire.

Émilienne D’Alençon was one of the most famous entertainers in Paris during the Belle Époque (1871-1914). At the height of her fame, her image was found on posters and postcards throughout the city. She first came to fame via a successful act at the Cirque d’Été before moving on to the Folies Bergères and other popular theatres. Like others in her position, she subsidized her lifestyle by becoming a courtesan, which allowed for more freedom than a mistress. Courtesans were prized for their beauty and fame and were openly paraded in public by their wealthy benefactors.

Ewen creates an accurate and gorgeous picture of Belle Époque Paris without exhausting the reader with myriad details. If anything, it is a bit too sanitized. Émilienne is a likeable character with a true sense of joie de vivre. It is easy to root for her as she struggles to ascend the ladder to fame. Along the way, the story is populated with well-known historical characters such as artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Coco Chanel, who was a lifelong friend to Émilienne. Readers who enjoy lively renderings of the past, combined with a well-paced plot and true historical characters will thoroughly enjoy Émilienne.