Maude Pichon has run away from her home in the French province of Brittany to escape an arranged marriage. But life in Paris is far harder, and much more expensive, than she ever dreamed. Desperate for work, she takes a job with an agency that offers an unusual service. The company hires plain, unattractive young women to act as foils for high society women. The idea is that the comparison of being next to someone ugly will make the client appear more attractive.
Maude is selected by the Countess Dubern to be a companion for her daughter, Isabelle, during her debutante season. The catch – Isabelle doesn’t know that Maude is hired help. Soon Maude is thrown into the whirl and intrigue of a Parisian aristocratic social season. But as her friendship with Isabelle grows, Maude faces increasing pressure from the Countess to go beyond the role of beauty foil to spy on Isabelle and influence her actions.
The first thing I loved about this this book is the setting, 1880’s Paris. I enjoyed the glimpses of the bohemian lifestyle of artists and musicians and cafes in contrast to the glittering aristocratic society all against the backdrop of the building of the Eiffel Tower. The second thing that appealed to me was that this enjoyable story really does a great job of exploring the concept of beauty. Does being seen next to someone who is less beautiful really enhance someone’s appearance? Plus, the toll the job takes on the employees’ self-esteem is appalling. They are constantly being judged only by, and openly reminded of, those traits that others perceive as faults.
Then there is the economic pressure on the girls, forcing them to put up with the humiliation of the position. What other options do they really have? The desire to maintain both the illusion of a place in aristocratic society and maintain a decent standard of living influence Maude’s decisions regarding her friendship with Isabelle and others. She may not agree with what the Countess is doing, but what choice does she have if she doesn’t want to be fired and end up destitute?
I have a few small quibbles with the story. Maude, the country grocer’s daughter with the provincial accent and manners is able to fit in with the aristocrats too easily. The end also seems to wrap up a bit too neatly. But overall, this was a very good book that I really enjoyed reading. It would make an excellent choice for a book discussion group, exploring as it does the ideas of beauty and social class. Those looking for a good story won’t be disappointed while those who appreciate a bit more social commentary will definitely enjoy Belle Epoque.
I read Belle Epoque as part of The Hub’s 2014 Morris Award Challenge.