As 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 â€œLes Repoussoirs.â€ 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: â€œI 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.â€ 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 â€œundemanding workâ€, 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.