When Maude Pichon runs away from provincial Brittany to Paris, her romantic dreams vanish as quickly as her savings. Desperate for work, she answers an unusual ad. The Durandeau Agency provides its clients with a unique service—the beauty foil. Hire a plain friend and become instantly more attractive.
Monsieur Durandeau has made a fortune from wealthy socialites, and when the Countess Dubern needs a companion for her headstrong daughter, Isabelle, Maude is deemed the perfect adornment of plainness.
Isabelle has no idea her new “friend” is the hired help, and Maude’s very existence among the aristocracy hinges on her keeping the truth a secret. Yet the more she learns about Isabelle, the more her loyalty is tested. And the longer her deception continues, the more she has to lose.
The only truly beautiful thing about Belle Epoque is the stunning cover. The content, on the other hand, could be a repoussoir itself: it’s positively plain, dull, and boring. The blurb made me believe I held a late 19th century Parisian version of Gossip Girl in my hands. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
Protagonist Maude would have been the perfect Little J. She’s poor, plain and is soon enthralled by the world of the rich and beautiful, desperately trying to belong and forgetting where she actually comes from. She’s not a very likable character, becoming more and more egoistic and self-absorbed, only trying to please, to secure her job and future.
Her Blair is the the headstrong Isabelle, who is the most layered and interesting character of the novel. She wants to break out of social conventions, wants to go to university instead of being the accessory on a husband’s arm. It is really unfortunate one does not get to hear parts of the story from her perspective.
The rest of the characters are awfully flat. The other repoussoirs are just there to make Maude more interesting, more special, but one never truly gets to hear their stories. There’s almost no interaction between the girls. Then there are the suitors and love interests which are all so dull and one-dimensional I cannot understand how anyone could fall for them.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the characters that are dull. I expected Maude to lead an interesting high stakes double life full of difficult situations, mixups and misunderstandings. Instead, her two lives go perfectly side by side for most parts of the novel. They almost never intermingle or clash. They were so separate, I wondered why even bother to tell both sides of her life.
The ending did make up a little for all the unexploited potential but felt too rushed; too much was happening in only a couple of pages. All in all, the idea was brilliant but fell short in the execution. The novel lacked colour and life; the supposedly lush and lustrous Paris and la belle époque felt dull and insipid.