Paid as a foil to beauty
She is a common enough character in young adult novels — and sometimes, in real life.
You know the type: not quite thin, rich or pretty enough to be the Queen Bee in that hierarchical hive called high school. But the Queen Bee loves having a Plain Jane friend by her side because the comparison only makes her look better. It's a fairly nasty way of using people, but Queen Bees aren't known for being nice.
Now imagine being a professional Plain Jane, a young woman paid to enhance the appearance of her wealthy patrons. This is the idea behind Elizabeth Ross' debut novel "Belle Epoque" (Delacorte Press, 2013), set in Paris, 1888.
Sixteen-year-old Maude Pichon runs away from her little village in Brittany to Paris when she learns that her father plans to marry her off to a fat old butcher twice her age. (For readers unfamiliar with Brittany, it's kind of like fleeing a small fishing town in Maine for New York City.) Her romantic dreams of life in the big city quickly fade, as she struggles to pay her rent with the money she makes from a dreadful job working in a laundry.
Desperate, she answers an unusual ad: "Young women wanted for undemanding work. Propriety guaranteed." Maude soon learns that her new job is to be a "repoussoir."
(One of the weaknesses of the book is that we often find Maude musing about the meanings of French words, as if French were not her native tongue: "Could the name come from the verb 'repousser'? To push away, to repel or repulse." It's a not very convincing device to explain something to the reader.)
The Countess Dubern hires Maude to be the repoussoir for her headstrong daughter Isabelle, soon to be making her debut in Paris society.
"A light ornament of plainness," her boss tells the Countess. "She would complement Isabelle very nicely, I think. Nothing too flashy for her Paris debut at the Rochefort ball."
She is hired, but the catch is that Isabelle must not know that Maude is a repoussoir. Rather, she is to be the poor relative of one of the Countess' friends, making her own, decidedly less glamorous, Paris debut. Maude's job, the Countess makes clear, is not just to make Isabelle shine, but also to spy on her intractable daughter. As the girls become close, Maude must decide between her professional obligations and her friendship with Isabelle.
"Belle Epoque" is an engaging story about recognizing beauty, whether it be conventional or unorthodox, and pursuing your dreams. In an author's note, Ross says that she was inspired by a short story called "Les Repoussoirs" by Emile Zola.
Ross made a smart decision to set her book in 1888-89, when the Eiffel Tower was being built for the Exposition Universelle. It was widely reviled by many Parisians as a monstrosity, the work of a lowly engineer, and certainly not beautiful. How times change.
Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 17 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews athttp://www.saralatta.com.