This “What I’m Reading Now” is brought to you by the Morris Award nominations for best debut young adult book. As it turns out, I haven’t read ANY of the books nominated, so I had lots to add to my to-be-read list!
What I’m Reading Now: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross
What’s It About (Jacket Description): When Maude Pichon runs away from provincial Brittany to Paris, her romantic dreams vanish as quickly as her savings. Desperate for work, she answers an unusual ad. The Durandeau Agency provides its clients with a unique service—the beauty foil. Hire a plain friend and become instantly more attractive.
Monsieur Durandeau has made a fortune from wealthy socialites, and when the Countess Dubern needs a companion for her headstrong daughter, Isabelle, Maude is deemed the perfect foil.
But Isabelle has no idea her new “friend” is the hired help, and Maude’s very existence among the aristocracy hinges on her keeping the truth a secret. Yet the more she learns about Isabelle, the more her loyalty is tested. And the longer her deception continues, the more she has to lose.
Do I Like It: Very much! I kind of wish I were reading the book instead of the ebook though, so I could show off the gorgeous cover.
Thoughts: I was immediately drawn to the concept of this book, and I haven’t been disappointed so far. The concept of the repoussoir whose job is to use her ugliness to make other seem beautiful evokes so much, so immediately. It makes me instantly think about class, gender, beauty ideals, money, and so much more. And the book definitely tackles these issues, but without being preachy or overly “issue” driven, and never at the cost of character or plot.
Maude, of course, is at the center of the narrative. She is idealistic and not immune to the appeals of high society life. But she is also kind, friendly, and eager to do good work even at a job that is slowly chipping away at her self-esteem. She has artistic sensibilities, which is where much of her attraction to high society comes from. She is relatable and likable, despite the fact that so far her narrative voice is not particularly distinct. And the effect her work has on her is so easy to understand, and so well-depicted. Because of course she is affected by a job that hinges on her own unattractiveness. But Maude is also unwilling to entirely give up on her self-esteem or her dreams, so she wavers between giving in to the harsh realities of her job and ignoring the bad in favor of enjoying the good.
The other key character is Isabelle, the young society woman who Maude must befriend without letting on about what her job really is. Where I am at in the book, this friendship has only just begun to take wing, but already I am enjoying it. It is obvious that Maude feels bad about her deception, and genuinely likes Isabelle. Isabelle herself is a wonderfully charismatic, realistic and flawed character. She is intelligent and capable of kindness and greatness of mind, but also moments of spite and pettiness. I am already so drawn to the friendship between the two girls that I’m dreading what might happen if Maude’s real purpose is revealed or something else goes wrong (and of course, something will go wrong).
On top of everything else, I’m finding it a can’t-put-it-down read – it was hard to stop reading long enough to write this! So for all these reasons (plus bragging rights for reading a fancy award-nominated novel) I highly recommend Belle Epoque!