Society does a number on people. In every era, though fashions change from culture to historical period, certain people are considered attractive and others ugly. For those with beautiful faces, be they rubenesque, sharply skinny, dimpled, butt-chinned, freckled, pale as snow, or dark as obsidian, life always is just that little bit easier. Odds of marrying into wealth or more wealth, of finding people to admire you, of obtaining a position go up because of that face.
In young adult fiction, the current standards of beauty are generally held up and shown to be the ideal. The heroes and heroines are perfection: wealthy, if at all possible, but in almost all cases beautiful by the standards of that time. The average YA character is often described as looking like a model. In such a world, the average cease to stand out and a plain face like Maude Pichon’s can come to the forefront. In a sea of perfectly symmetrical face, the strange and unique are immediately more compelling.
Maude Pichon left her small town in France for Paris to escape marriage to the town’s old, fat butcher. Once there, she has difficulty finding work, so she answers a strange ad for employment only to discover they want to hire ugly girls as foils to their wealthy clients, using juxtaposition to make those faces appear more lovely. Rightly insulted, Maude leaves, but dire financial straits bring her back.
Elizabeth Ross successfully shows just how much society’s whims affect a person, even as they try to reject them. Maude thinks the whole agency is horrible, and doesn’t want to believe she belongs there. Even so, she feels that she’s of another class above the other repoussoirs. Though she resents being treated with disdain because of her own appearance, she does the same thing almost without awareness that she’s doing so. It’s human nature to want to be desirable and to want to have it better than at least someone. Misery loves company that’s even more miserable.
Belle Epoque depicts society, warts and all. No one really comes out of this book smelling like roses. Everyone’s highly flawed and warped by social mores. I loved the honesty of this, because it’s so true, but people rarely take the time to realize it. Even the heroines and the sympathetic people take part in opinions and behaviors that are rather reprehensible when you think about them closely.
Maude comes into a rather classic conflict of going for what she wants or what society makes her think she wants. She ends up chasing after things she never even wanted until her work as a repoussoir put her in contact with a realm of society which she’d never before had access to. Even if you’re happy with what you have, there’s a bit of you that cannot resist feeling envy when confronted with other people’s lives of greater luxury. Why don’t I have a basketball court in my basement? Hey, I might not like basketball, but it’s still not fair! The other side of this is conveyed through Isabelle, Maude’s client’s daughter, who wishes for freedom, even at the expense of the life to which she became accustomed. Ross tackles all of this tactfully and honestly.
What Left Me Wanting More:
The only drawbacks for me were the ending and my lack of emotional attachment. I appreciate the message and idea of the ending, but it felt a bit too happy. Everything wrapped up too neatly, too ideally, and I couldn’t suspend disbelief to that degree. I also felt detached the whole time, because Maude’s decisions were hard for me to really sympathize with, even if I understood why she made them.
The Final Verdict:
Elizabeth Ross’ Belle Epoque stands out from the average YA novel in its honest look at society’s expectations and the way it warps one’s mind. I think this is a historical that would work for readers who generally only enjoy contemporaries.