Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

[Hub reading challenge; Morris award]

belleThis was a good book with a fascinating premise, but I just didn’t give it the attention it deserved. It took me forever to read and I read four other books in between starting and finishing it. I suppose that means that I just wan’t engaged enough in the story if I was so easily able to keep putting it down, but I would say I did like it.

Set in Paris in 1888 it made me want to take out Woody Allen’s marvelous film, Midnight in Paris, and watch it again.  Maude is a young woman who has escaped a dreary country life for the glamour of Paris. Unfortunately it’s not very glamorous when you are barely making a living. She is approached by a gentleman who runs a special agency and agrees to employment there. Maude is hired as a repouissoir-one who literally “repulses.” She and other plain (or homely) women are hired by aristocracy to attend social events with them. Their presence will make their clients shine and sparkle by comparison.  It’s a humiliating position, but it pays well.  When Maude is hired for the entire season by a countess she thinks she has hit gold.  She gets to dress up in beautiful clothes and is introduced to a luxurious world of wealth and culture she would never have been part of otherwise.  The countess has hired Maude in secret to accompany her daughter Isabelle, whom she would like to know Maude as just a friend.  Her further instructions to Maude are to help Isabelle become agreeable to a good marriage.  Unfortunately Maude becomes genuine friends with Isabelle, who is intelligent and wishes to attend the Sorbonne to study science, and is conflicted by loyalty, friendship, and finance.

I enjoyed the details of Paris, Maude’s mingling with the Bohemian set, and the details of luxury.  The repouissoir business was fascinating, too.

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