BELLE EPOQUE by Elizabeth Ross is one of the YA debuts I’m most excited about this year. Set in turn of the century Paris, it promises a unique setting and also an unusual heroine: Maude Pichon, an impoverished girl who takes on a job as a repussoir or beauty foil—a plain girl hired to make her upper class companion look prettier as she makes her debut. Elizabeth and I sat down to talk about her new novel and the theme of beauty that runs through it.
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 foil.
But 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.
LB: First let’s talk about the inspiration for Belle Epoque.
ER: Well it all began with this short story I read by Emile Zola “Les Repoussoirs” (Rentafoil in English) about an agency of ugly women for hire. The short story really struck a nerve with me. It was cruel and fascinating at the same time. But the short story really didn’t delve into the experience of BEING one of these girls. So I wrote that story!
LB: It’s such a compelling hook and certainly very topical. Your heroine is considered plain by the standards of her day. There’s a moment in the first chapter when she realizes that she has been dubbed “ugly,” that she is “one of them.” It broke my heart a little because it’s something that I think so many girls go through, the moment when she realizes that she doesn’t look “right.”
ER: Exactly – I think it’s the quintessential teenage moment. Who escapes adolescence without at some point feeling unattractive?
LB: I think those wounds stay with you. I know many beautiful women who still see themselves in the same unforgiving light.
ER: And pretty girls feel pressure also. As one of the characters says in the book, there is always someone prettier to compare yourself to and fall short. I don’t think anyone escapes those repoussoir feelings. So I wanted to explore this theme of beauty as it’s so entrenched in girls from a young age.
LB: Absolutely. I grew up in Hollywood. I worked in entertainment. I’ve seen the way that constant judgment and valuation (or devaluation) can tear people down.
ER: Yes, working in film as an editor you’re privy to a lot of awful judgments on appearance. I think I channeled some of those experiences into my book.
LB: Before we go further, I think we need to address the gender divide. There’s no question that men are evaluated on their looks as well (particularly in Hollywood), but I think the double standard is evident in the wide variety of men we see in film. A man’s face is allowed to have character (wrinkles, a big nose, a receding hairline) a woman’s face is held to a very narrow, very specific standard of beauty.
ER: Very narrow and weighted heavily on youth. I think film’s tolerance of different kinds of beauty is very low. Working in this environment brought out the same feeling of injustice I remember having as a teenager – the idea that men get to be people, but women are always ‘women’ first . They are on display as unwitting beauty contestants, judged on appearance before anything else.
LB: Still, I know boys are struggling more and more with appearance, possibly because we live in a more visual age and pictures are EVERYWHERE.
ER: And completely photoshopped.
LB: Ah yes the photoshopping kills me.
ER: Nothing feels real anymore.
LB: Working as a makeup artist, I was shocked at the standard women set for themselves because of it. They’re constantly bombarded by images that have been doctored and often they don’t realize it.
ER: That’s the thing – women are as hard on themselves as their detractors, harder maybe. Also if an unconventional beauty like Lena Dunham displays confidence about her looks, then she’s taken down. It’s as though, yes, you can be funny and have a personality, but first you must pass the pretty test.
LB: How fantastically subversive is Lena Dunham? It’s crazy that seeing an ordinary female body on television is so shocking.
ER: She’s great – she’s confident, holy crap! And why should it be shocking?! But yes those are the double standards.
LB: That’s right. Put some naked, sad sack middle-aged dude in a room with a beautiful woman and it’s like, “Oh, the tragedy of life! So poignant.” But reverse that and it’s like, “You lie!!”
ER: Hah! It’s important for young women to see other types of femininity.
LB: “Femininity” is an interesting word because it’s not just about appearance, but about behavior. Dunham is transgressive not just because she’s naked, but because she’s active and funny and demanding—while being naked. I think that’s why I’m glad Dunham is out there. Mindy Kaling too. That visibility is powerful. And I’m glad that we’re seeing more YA books deal honestly with this.
ER: I really feel Maude [Belle Epoque] and Alina [Shadow and Bone] are kindred spirits, despite being from different genres.
LB: Orphans (or semi orphans) unite!
ER: I had no idea the beauty theme and the Plain Jane were so evident in your book until I started reading.
LB: It was important to me, so yes it’s very much there.
ER: What drew you to the Plain Jane? Did you ever feel pressure to pretty her up or make her more beautiful?
LB: Not at all. And I’ve actually been surprised when people refer to her as “ordinary” or “average.” Alina would love to be ordinary, but she’s spent her life sickly and scrawny and rather kicked around. It’s when she succeeds in mastering her power that she stops feeling tired and sick and truly blossoms. But she never becomes conventionally beautiful the way Zoya or Genya is, she’s just the most lovely version of herself.
ER: Right, which is so satisfying. For my main character, Maude, I knew that she would never become a swan. That was not the story arc of Belle Epoque. She learns to create beauty instead of be considered a beauty. Her artist’s journey is her calling.
LB: ”Her calling”—YES!
ER: And like Alina, that’s how she truly blossoms and finds her voice, her sense of self.
LB: I love this—the idea that doing what you love, becoming who you were meant to be is what makes you beautiful. It gives you strength and confidence.
ER: Which is real beauty, not the perfection of symmetry or someone else’s definition of beauty.
LB: And I think that’s something that we (hopefully) grow into as we get older. We find the things we love and embrace them, we become wholly ourselves and stop trying to be something else.
ER: I think you learn to accept yourself and stop hoping for the makeover.
LB: Oh my gosh, we’ve gone so Oprah. Be your best self, Elizabeth! But the beauty issue can be a bit of a trigger in YA. It’s something we’re not entirely comfortable talking about.
ER: I know – it’s taboo or something. Heroines are supposed to be pretty. We learn that at a young age.
LB: I think it goes beyond that. If a heroine is pretty, she’s supposed to be unaware of it—or she risks being dubbed vain. If she doesn’t measure up to the beauty standard, she’s supposed to be equally oblivious. But beauty is a commodity and young women and girls are keenly aware of this. Your book makes the issue explicit.
ER: That was what was so appealing about the story to me. Yes, Belle Epoque is historical fiction but really that’s a lens through which to view an issue relevant to modern day young women. The cruelty of the job at the agency is extreme. We can live it at a safer distance as a reader but maybe it shines a light on some experience in our own lives.
LB: You do something really interesting with the agency that hires Maude—it operates as a kind of evil fairy godmother. It’s a subversion of the classic makeover where her employers increase Maude’s value to them by making her look worse.
ER: Yes! That’s why the girls get put in awful unflattering dresses with their worst points accentuated.
LB: And the agency seamstress takes pride in their creations.
ER: Exactly. It’s pretty twisted
LB: It’s perfection
LB: So I’ve gotten a look at Belle Epoque and it does happen to be a beautiful object—so much Art Nouveau gorgeousness. The cover is lovely, very arresting, but I can’t help but notice that the girl on it isn’t exactly “plain.”
ER: I love the Art Nouveau design too. I also love the cinematic feel of the image and the red/white/blue color palette reminds me of the French flag. The designer at Random House did an amazing job. But I think it’s hard for a model to exactly represent your main character. I do think she represents perfectly that belle époque era in Paris. In a way I think the reader who picks the book off the shelf and is attracted by the cover and the promise of turn of the century Parisian glamor is akin to my main character at the beginning of the book. She is also seduced by the idea of Paris and who she might become there.
LB: Oh I love that. We’re Maude!
ER: As you read the book, I think you might recognize that girl on the cover as Maude when she becomes most seduced by the gilded life and most unlike her plain self.
LB: Fair enough. And do we even know that we’re looking at Maude? Is it possible the girl on the cover is Isabelle (the aristocrat Maude works for)?
ER: I think it’s open to interpretation. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is she Maude or Isabelle? Sometimes I think she’s a mix of my two heroines! It will be interesting to see what other countries do for the cover.
LB: I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but has it sold in France?
ER: Yes it sold in France! And Italy, and the UK.
LB: Woohoo! Go Belle Epoque! So before we go, I want to take this even more Oprah, did you consider yourself plain growing up?
ER: I think during my teenage years there were definitely times I didn’t like myself that much. I was a late bloomer. It wasn’t until my 20′s after university when I moved to Montreal that I felt more confident.
LB: What do you think helped you find that confidence?
ER: I just became more outgoing once I left Scotland, kind of like Maude leaving Brittany and that small town mentality. I think moving countries, you can kind of reinvent yourself.
LB: What initially drew you to Montreal specifically?
ER: I studied French in university. I had spent a summer there and it’s such a vibrant city. So I moved there after graduation. Montreal was basically my bohemian Paris! But I think finding my path helped my confidence. I started working in film.
LB: It’s interesting that both you and your heroine found your calling in a visual medium.
ER: There is definitely a piece of my soul in Maude Pichon.
To celebrate the release of BELLE EPOQUE on June 11th, Elizabeth is giving away a signed hardcover!
Elizabeth Ross studied French and film studies at university in Scotland. She lives in Los Angeles, California, where, when she isn’t writing, she edits feature films. Her debut novel BELLE EPOQUE will be available June 11th from Delacorte/Random House. You can visit her at www.elizabethrossbooks.com
Leigh Bardugo is the author of the New York Times Best Seller, Shadow and Bone. She was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Los Angeles, and graduated from Yale University. Siege and Storm, the second book in the Grisha Trilogy, will be published on June 4, 2013 by Holt Children’s/Macmillan.