Book Review: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

This book was alternate historical fiction with a major emphasis on societal beauty standards. It had great ideas. But Elizabeth Ross didn’t pull it off.

2/5 stars 

cover belle epoque


Amazon description:

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 adornment of plainness.
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.

I loved the concepts behind this book: beauty standards exploited, a girl living a double life, historical fiction in France. But it didn’t deliver.

The characterization was lame. Maude, the protagonist, was just boring. She was static–thing kept happening around her, and for 99% of the book, she just goes “I’ll deal with it later.” She is living a double, then triple life–it should be fascinating! There should be lies and complicated excuses and complex plans…and there wasn’t. Talk abut disappointing.

Maude’s character didn’t make sense to me–none of her characteristics were fleshed out enough for her to feel real. And then there was the way she got to Paris. She runs away from an arranged marriage to a creepy older guy–which isn’t an original idea at all–but the weird thing is that you find out that she wasn’t even engaged to the guy. She just heard some women gossiping about the possibility, freaked, and ran off to Paris. Really? Ross tried to emphasize her fear of being tied town in a sleepy country town and her romantic notions of Paris, but it came off fake.

Then there is Isabelle. She starts out as a b-with-an-itch, but you know she has to befriend Maude–that’s the book. But the transformation from jerk to confidant happened waaaaaaaaay to quickly for me, like flipping a switch with a few off-hand comments. It didn’t make sense. And as you learned more about her character, she just grew more and more predictable–the classic “more than she seems” debutante.

The side characters were just as predictable–practically archetypes representing the components of storytelling. You have your supportive friend figure with a brash tongue to foil the protagonist’s meekness, your bratty girls to emphasize her doubts, your struggling musician with a pure heart to tell her she’s smart, and a duke with a big smile and a fake personality for her to fall for. The romance was weak, but not in a subtly-enhancing-the-story way. It felt badly done, badly stitched into the rest of the plot.

Ross was heavy-handed with her themes in this book. Discoveries about characters’ “inner depths,” Maude’s revelations about her self image, the book’s messages about beauty and society–they were overdone, dumped into the story instead of infused into the plot. Maude knew too much about a character by looking at their face, or their hands, or something–it was clear the author was trying to talk about the world with the character traits, but it didn’t work. My sister always points out this problem in my writing, so seeing it someone else’s novel was both heartening and annoying.

One other thing bugged me about this book. I read the author’s note at the back, and Ross got the idea of the agency from a short story  by Emile Zola. Since basically the only thing I liked about the book was the concept, this was a let down at the end of my reading experience. I don’t have a problem with authors getting inspiration from other authors (last week I published my own retelling of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems), but this time it annoyed me, for some reason. Also, the cover? It sucks.

Still, the book is interesting. I especially liked the friendship Maude forms with an older girl at the agency; you don’t often see middle-aged women in YA stories that don’t play a mother role, but a friend role. If you like books with semi-historical settings, or books that deal with beauty standards and stereotypes, this book would be good for you. If you want an impeccable display of story-crafting, this is not it.

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