Rated 4 stars **** 2013. Delacorte. 327 p. (Includes “Author’s Note.”)
Unwilling to submit to an arranged marriage to a 40-year-old man, sixteen-year-old Maude Pichon runs away from her small, seaside village. Adrift in the large city of Paris and with her limited money running out, she seeks work at the Durandeau Agency where she reluctantly becomes a repoussoir – a person who is so ugly she repels others to makes her client look beautiful.
The Agency is filled with poor women and girls who have no money, but who Durandeau deems ugly enough to earn him a few francs. Maude becomes the repoussoir for Isabelle, a Countess’ rich daughter she plans to marry off during her upcoming debutante season. The only catch to her job is Maude must gain Isabelle’s confidence and report back to the Countess, but not let Isabelle know her true role. As months go by and the Countess transforms Maude’s life, she finds herself drifting into fantasies where she has become the debutante and finds herself a rich husband.
As she begins to befriend Isabelle, she looks down on her former life and friends at the Agency in favor of a new, imagined life with the Countess. However, the more time she spends with them, the more she will have to come to terms with her true self and decide if the rich life is really where she’s meant to be.
I enjoyed reading “Belle Epoque,” and learning about life in 1800’s France. Though based on a fictional story about repoussoirs written in 1866, it’s a shame that we still judge others by appearances rather than by what they offer society.
Recommended for ages 16 and older, including Adults.