Friday, November 27, 2015

Book Review: Belle Epoque

I don't really have anything to open up this review with so I'll just make a general announcement first. It only recently occurred to me that it is both late November and that I've barely read any 2015 books. So, while I have checked out several armfuls of them from the local library I doubt that I will have reviews of any of them up before the end of the year and thus, like this year I'm going to push my general listing of the best books of 2015 back. Probably not until June this time, this year I realized I didn't actually need a full six months, but March or April seems likely.

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

In a fit of frustration, Maude stole all of her father's money, moved in Paris in 1899 and has found that the city of lights is more expensive than she feared. Unable to get anything other than the most menial of jobs she is tempted by the idea of being a repoussoirs, an ugly woman to make those around her shine more. It's hardly flattering work, and the girl she is supposed to beautify is scornful of her, but it's good money and a chance to live a life she would only dream about otherwise.

The initial premise for the story feels like a clever one, it's such a common trope in stories to have "one girl is pretty and the other appears only plain next to her " (you can also tell a lot about a story just from which position the heroine appears in) that this take on it appears only natural. And that part of the story, including Maude and Isabelle's growing friendship, was by far the strongest part of the story. Isabelle was a fascinating character and the struggle Maude had with the friendship felt fresh and interesting. No sequel could capture this relationship the same way but I'd love to see more stories with this smarter take on forced acquaintances. 

There were two points where the story broke my suspension of disbelief however, the first instance was a rather minor point where Maude and her crush are at an art gallery and Maude has some rather astute thoughts about the pieces she was looking at. This was a moment when I felt like I heard the author talking, not the character, as someone who has been both writing reviews for years and did formal art critiques in school for years (recently enough that I can still remember approaching them for the first time), Maude does not have enough background for what she is saying. She is a smart girl but someone without the book schooling to interpret these art styles in the specific way that she is. I'm rather surprised this wasn't caught during the drafts since it seemed glaringly obvious to me, thankfully it is a small moment but given that this is part of her motivation to start perusing photography later it does have some repercussions.

My second complaint is a bit larger in that I didn't buy into Maude romance at all. I have a hard time with "crush at first sight" stories to start with (which is essentially how it begins) so I didn't understand at all why Maude kept seeking her crush out* and build a relationship with him based on no known common ground or insight into his character. All of the other (platonic) relationships in the book built upon themselves nicely and I could see why characters reacted to each other the way they did which made this pairing stand out even more being written in such a slapdash way.

Finally, this is more of a quibble than a complaint, while I liked many parts of the resolution I felt like other parts of it were a bit too clean and tidy. Maude seems suddenly so much better off despite being in a rather similar position to where she had started and that jarred me out of the story a little bit again. I am not surprised that the story had a happy ending, a sad one or even bittersweet one would have felt at odds with how it was building up, but like with my other complaints, it felt a bit too simplistic to match the other, more realistic parts of the story and I'm surprised that shift wasn't caught. As it stands, I am curious about what the author will write next, this was Ross' debut novel, but I am also cautious since these are the kinds of flaws that don't necessarily go away even as an author improves.

*like with real people, I'm terrible at character names and usually double check them online before posting reviews. I cannot seem to find any summaries quickly with his name in them which should say something, if you do read the book you'll see who it is quite quickly however!

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