Belle Epoque – Elizabeth Ross

“‘Perfect, just perfect,’ days the stout man.

He scrutinizes me, his suit pinching across his rotund torso, and I assume that this is Monsieur Durandeau, but he doesn’t introduce himself. Instead he walks around me in a circle as I stand still and awkward in the middle of the sitting room. A faint perfume lingers in the air. 
Perfect: no one has ever described me like that before.”

When Maude runs away from her fathers house to escape he fate as the old butcher’s wife she expects to get to Paris and for everything to fall into place. However with no letters of recommendation, no shops will take her on and she is forced to do the worst kinds of manual jobs. This is until Maude sees a notice asking for Young women for undemanding work, thinking this might describe her she goes to the Durandeau Agency. The agency specialises in repoussouirs – ugly women who women of good social standing hire to make them look even more attractive. The work is humiliating and reveals a disturbing ugliness in Parisian society, but as Maude is nearing destitution what other choice does she have? 

***
Wow, this book works so well in highlighting the ugliness of the world in 1888 and 89, yet also reflects shockingly on our own world and really works as a review of society as a whole, even now. 
The story line is incredible and once Maude gets hired by the Countess to be a ‘friend’ to Isabelle, the Countess’ daughter, it really kicks in. I loved everything it had to say about society, about beauty and what it really is, the effects that the agency has on the girls who work there and just what being a young woman in Paris of this time really meant, regardless of social standing. There was an undercurrent of change in the time and I think it was no mistake that the book was set where it was to reflect this change amongst the people within it. There was the education side of things with Isabelle and her reluctance to do what was expected of her due to her position, there was the art side of things with Paul and his work, and not least of all there was the Eiffel Tower and the change that made both physically to the Paris skyline, but also to the society and how they felt towards it. 
I honestly couldn’t get enough of this book once it got going, the writing flowed so well and the characters were brilliant. There is a lot about Belle Epoque that you are not meant to like when reading, especially with the way people are treated; as if they are possessions or meaningless. The Countess was quite possibly the worst character out of them all but Monsieur Durandeau came a close second. Maude herself was a little uninteresting at first and only really stood out as an individual towards the end, there were times during the book that I really didn’t like her but that was more because of how she’d viewed herself because of the agency. I loved Isabelle even though you were obviously meant to hate her at first, but I understood and loved everything she stood for and saw a lot of myself in her. Marie-Josée and Paul were also incredible character, both with their own problems and aspirations and I was backing them all the way.
I couldn’t give a bigger shout out to this book if I tried! I loved the storyline, the writing, the setting, I found it hilarious that the people of Paris seemed to believe that the Eiffel Tower would only be standing for a couple of years and hated it (things which apparently reflected reports at the time) and I loved that I had experienced some of the same things as Maude in Paris but a good 120 years later! According to the author bio at the end of the book Elizabeth Ross is currently working on a 1940’s Los Angles book and I can tell you now; I’m first in line for that! 
Belle Epoque was published on September 5th by Hot Key Books. My copy was sent to me from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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  • I totally agree – this was such a good book. I think Isabelle was probably my favourite character – she was so strong and independent – but Marie-Josée came a close second and I liked Maude too. I hadn’t heard about Elizabeth Ross’s next book but I am definitely looking forward to reading it and I’m glad it’s another historical fiction as that’s clearly a genre the author rocks! Fantastic review!

  • This sounds fantastic. I love that it’s not straightforward and that it casts open eyes on the period. I need to pick up my copy asap!