Belle Epoque

“What I know is possible has stretched too far to be able to fit back into the little nook of home.”

Elizabeth Ross

So I won Belle Epoque ages ago (as in, last summer – I blame the TBR Pile) from a Book Smugglers giveaway and…well, I’ve only just got round to reading it.

Set in Paris circa 1889, it’s the story of penniless Breton girl Maude Pichon, who arrives in Paris with shiny dreams that are quickly crushed by the city. Desperate for work, she answers an advertisement in a newspaper:

Young women wanted for undemanding work. Propriety guaranteed. Apply in person to the Durandeau Agency, 27 Avenue de L’Opera, Paris.

Turns out the “undemanding work” is that of a repoussoir, an ugly or plain woman hired by rich women to set off their own beauty. (This does, I have to admit, sound fairly implausible.)

Maude, despite her initial humiliation, takes the job and is hired by a countess who wants her to spy on her daughter Isabelle, who doesn’t know Maude’s true identity. Cue Intrigue and Drama among the Upper Classes!

First of all, Belle Epoque isn’t a bad book. Paris is a fascinating setting, and the contrast between the gilded, luxurious lives of the rich and the squalor of the poor and bohemian is well done. There’s a nice message somewhere in there about independence and the idea of beauty being in the eye of the beholder.

But…I just found everything quite unmemorable. The characters all feel quite superficial, and I couldn’t really bring myself to care about them. The dialogue is frequently contrived and unbelievable, and there are entire scenes that feel set up purely in order to stress how BAD the agency is. It’s REALLY BAD, people. The Durandeaus are EVIL.

Oh, and the plot is about as unexpected as Jennifer Aniston’s latest chick flick. You can tell precisely the direction it’s going in from a hundred pages away. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing, but here, along with all the other negative points, it definitely is.

Like I said, Belle Epoque isn’t bad. It’s just rather average.

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