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Updated: February 10, 2014 19:18 IST

Parisian dreams

Rachna Chhabria
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Maude runs away from home to the charming Paris and into a dream world. A special friendship compels her to find her identity or rather, conceal it.

I had mixed feelings when I picked up a copy of Belle Epoque. It means ‘a beautiful era’ in French. I am glad that the book shoved aside all my doubts. In fact, the main character, a sixteen-year-old girl Maude Pichon had me engrossed from page one.

Maude has run away from a small unknown province to the big city of Paris to escape a marriage her father has planned for her with the forty-year-old butcher. In Paris, Maude’s dreams about life in a big city vanish as does the money she has taken from her father’s shop. With her money dwindling fast, Maude answers an ad from The Durandeau Agency.

The agency owned by Monsieur Durandeau specialises in providing their clients (wealthy socialites) with something called the beauty foil. The rich socialites hire plain, ordinary looking girls to accompany them to debutante balls and other social functions. Alongside their ordinary looking companions, they look more attractive. Monsieur Durandeau cashes in on the rich socialites’ desperate urge to look more beautiful.

When Countess Dubern needs a companion for her stubborn and strong-willed daughter Isabelle, Maude is chosen as the perfect adornment of plainness which in turn will enhance Isabelle’s beauty. 

In a tight spot

Maude is introduced to Isabelle as the Countess’ friend’s daughter. Isabelle and Maude forge a friendship while attending various high society balls, plays and races. Maude is transported into a dream world filled with expensive clothes, eligible bachelors from the aristocracy and high society parties. Isabelle, unaware that her new friend is the hired help, who has to report to the Countess, settles into an easy friendship with Maude and confides her plans for her future.

Maude is caught in a dilemma. The more she gets to know Isabelle, the more Maude likes her new friend whose generosity and honesty has won her over. It becomes more and more difficult for her to keep the truth of her identity a secret from Isabelle, especially when she realises that the Countess is manipulating her like a puppet. The longer Maude’s deception continues, the more she has to lose.

One can’t help but fall in love with the main character Maude. Everyone, who has ever left their home, with eyes full of big dreams will identify with Maude’s story. The book will strike a chord with teenagers.  

The book is inspired by a short story written by Emile Zola titled Les Repoussoirs. The author Elizabeth Ross weaves a wonderful world of bohemian Paris of the late 1800s, where the wealthy go to any lengths to enhance their looks and status in society. It was the time when ethics and morality lost in front of greed and desire. The Eiffel Tower under construction plays a perfect backdrop to this heart-tugging story.

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, Hot Key Books, Penguin, Rs. 350

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