Maude Pichon has recently run away from her provincial home in Brittany, and the life her father had planned for her (which included marriage to a middle age butcher) to Paris. It’s 1888 and Paris is getting ready for the Exposition Universelle, and its most well known landmark (the Eiffel Tower) is in the process of being built. However, the city is more expensive (and less dream-like) than Maude anticipated and soon she is out of money and food. Desperate for work, she becomes a repoussoir, an unremarkable or ugly woman who is hired out to beautiful socialites in order to make the socialites stand out and “become” more desirable by comparison. Maude is humiliated, but without any other options she is hired by a Countess. Unfortunately, the Countess has hired Maude to be a repoussoir for her daughter, Isabelle, who not only has no idea Maude is more than a poor relation, but also has no interest in society events or marriage. This bought friendship begins to develop into a real one, but the closer Maude grows to Isabelle the more she begins to deceive both Isabelle and her employer.
Maude and Isabelle are both young woman who want more than the life that has been planned out for them by others, but they have grown up worlds apart. Belle Epoque is a novel about friendship, the future, and Maude figuring out who she can be. Being hired for being ugly has shaken her grasp on her own self worth, but it is the girl she has been hired to accentuate that helps her get a hold of who she is and what she wants again.
At times there is some awkwardly placed French (“…repousser? To push away, to repel or repulse” – general this type of breakdown of a word in your own language is saved for the ACT) as it’s what they should already just be speaking, but not enough to be truly annoying, and much of it is smooth enough to not get in the way.
An entertaining historical fiction novel, that is a lighter read, filled with smart and interesting characters.
Looking for more Parisian historical fiction? Check out Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly.