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Morris Award Finalist: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

2014 January 16
by Alegria Barclay
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Belle EpoqueAs a fan of both Emile Zola and Paris at the turn-of-the-century, I was very excited to read Elizabeth Ross’ debut novel Belle Epoque based on Zola’s short story “Les Repoussoirs.”  Zola’s story briefly outlines how one particularly unsavory businessman opens an agency that rents out unattractive lower-class women to attractive upper-class ones in order to highlight the latter’s beauty.  Near the end of Emile Zola’s story, the narrator states: “I don’t know if you can realize what it is like to be a foil; they have their joys and public triumphs but they also have their very private sorrows.”  In many ways, this one sentence is at the heart of Ross’s novel as she explores with nuance and depth the complex internal lives of these women acting as foils to more beautiful women.

Belle Epoque primarily focuses on the story of Maude Pichon, a poor young girl who has run away from an arranged marriage to find her fortune in the City of Lights.  She soon discovers that life is not as easy as imagined in Paris for a plain woman with few prospects.  Hungry and desperate, she answers an ad looking for young women for “undemanding work”, as she soon finds out the work may be undemanding physically but it is emotionally taxing.  Although not ugly, Maude is deemed plain enough to serve the purposes of the Countess Dubern who needs a suitable companion for her willful and beautiful daughter Isabelle.  Maude’s interactions with the Dubern family form the basis of the story set against the sumptuous backdrop of Paris in the 1890s.

Although the novel addresses many themes popular in YA—beauty, friendship, parent-child conflict—it does so in unusual ways.  Beauty, for evident reasons, is central to the narrative.  There is the obvious commentary on physical beauty and what defines it, the power associated with it, and the double standards that are a result of it.  And as we come to know both Maude and the other foils, we are of course drawn to their inner beauty.  Far more interestingly though, is how Ross explores beauty on a myriad of other levels.  The novel is set during the construction of the Eiffel Tower which is depicted as a monstrosity and yet thought by a few to be beautiful.  The glittering parties of the high society are both beautiful and grotesque in all their excess.  Isabelle’s passion for science reveals the beauty of the unseen.  And Maude, herself, is drawn to the beauty of the ordinary and seeks to capture that everyday beauty with her photographs.

Indeed, Belle Epoque is in some ways more a novel about the power of art than the power of beauty.  Maude’s development is that of an artist finding her art and in doing so finding both her voice and her beauty.  In a nice twist on “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” it turns out that Maude’s looks really are secondary to the plot.  Refreshingly, there is no great reveal where it turns out that she’s really a pretty girl in disguise.  In the end, she becomes the beholder and her confidence comes from having shifted from being viewed to viewing.

Equally captivating is Ross’ focus on female friendship.  Maude and Isabelle’s friendship against all odds is a compelling one and, although the ending stretches the imagination a bit, it is ultimately believable.  Ironically, they do serve as foils to each other just not in the way intended.  Each serves to heighten and encourage the other’s passion in the way that only true friendship can.

Although Belle Epoque ends perhaps too tidily, it is a lovely read that will whisk you away to the age of beauty.  Enjoy your time in Paris and let us know what you think!

-Alegria Barclay, currently reading The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg

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