Title: Belle Epoque
Author: Elizabeth Ross
Publication Date: 2013
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Number of Pages: 323
Awards: William C. Morris Award Finalist, Junior Library Guild Selection
Genre/Subgenre: Historical Fiction
Reader’s Annotation: Hired as a “beauty foil” for a wealthy Parisian debutante, Maude begins to question her place in the world and the nature of beauty.
Maude Pinchon runs away to Paris from her village in Brittany to avoid an arranged marriage to an older man. When she arrives in Paris, she finds that it is difficult to make ends meet and her best employment opportunity is to work with an agency that provides ugly “friends” for society women. Maude is hired as a “beauty foil” to Isabelle Dubern, the wealthy daughter of a count who is set to make her society debut. Maude is hired by Isabelle’s mother to make Isabelle appear more desirable and to spy on her, but Maude and Isabelle form a genuine friendship. Maude discovers that Isabelle aspires to study science at the Sorbonne and agrees to help Isabelle study. Meanwhile, Countess Dubern wants Maude to influence Isabelle to make an advantageous marriage. Maude must decide whether between her financial security and her friendship with Isabelle in this fascinating novel.
I found Belle Epoque to be a very interesting work of historical fiction. I was not familiar with the concept of a repoussoir, or beauty foil, before reading this novel, but I think it made for a very interesting story. I thought the protagonist Maude was well-developed, as were the more secondary characters. This novel provided a unique take on 19th century French class relations and particularly the social standing of young women. I think this would be a good read for those who enjoy historical fiction or have an interest in French culture.
Why I Chose the Book:
The Belle Epoque is one of my favorite time periods – the culture of that time period is fascinating. I was also very intrigued by the concept of the book, as I had never heard of a repoussoir or beauty foil before.
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Book Talk Ideas
Host a reading and discussion of the Emile Zola short story “Les Repoussoirs,” which inspired the novel.
1. How does being a repoussoir or beauty foil change the way that Maude sees herself? How does it change the way others see her and how she sees the other repoussoirs?
2. Despite the transactional method of their meeting and their very different backgrounds, Maude and Isabelle develop a true friendship over the course of the novel. What draws them to each other, and in what ways are they similar?
3. What do you think Belle Epoque is saying about the nature of beauty?
“Belle Epoque.” NoveList K-8. EBSCO, 17 May 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2014. <http://0-web.a.ebscohost.com.catalog.sjlibrary.org/novpk8/detail?vid=10&sid=73dc2073-91c3-4ffc-a292-ff98c6fbcfcf%40sessionmgr4004&hid=4214&bdata=JnNpdGU9bm92cGs4LWxpdmU%3d#db=njh&UI=10187406>.
Elizabeth Ross (2014). Books. Retrieved from http://www.elizabethrossbooks.com/books-belle-epoque/
Goodreads (2013). Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13642661-belle-epoque
Ross, E. (2013). Belle Epoque. New York: Delacorte Press.