Have you ever felt prettier or handsomer when you were around friends that society thought were less attractive? Maybe in your teen years, when it felt like everything came down to how you looked, what you wore, and how popular you were in relation to everyone else. Hopefully, it’s something that you grew out of as you became an adult, seeing that beauty is something that shouldn’t come by comparing yourself to other people and feeling better when you’re seen next to someone “ugly.” Hopefully.
And hopefully, an agency that’s sole purpose is to recruit and employ “ugly” or “plain” looking women in order to rent them out to other women who want to seem better looking by comparison would repel you. Make you think, “thank god we don’t live in France in the 1880’s (which is when Belle Epoque takes place)”. I know it did me. But it also reminded me how many commercials there are about skin creams and procedures that “erase the effects of time,” all the air-brushed photos of celebs that trick us into thinking they’re perfect when they’re anything but that flood the newsstands and internet, and the plethora of hair dye because god forbid one gray hair shows through.
Apparently, the quest for the fountain of youth and enhanced beauty is still alive and well. Which makes this book incredibly topical, regardless of being set in the 1880’s. The story is simple: a sixteen year old, Maude, runs away from home in a small French village to escape being married off to the local butcher, some 25 years her senior who possessed a “dangerous smile.” She goes to Paris to start a new life and winds up at the Durandeau Agency, which hires ugly and plain young women to be “beauty foils” to women of means who want to appear more beautiful by comparison. Maude “gets lucky” and selected by a Countess to be her daughter Isabelle’s new “friend”. The Countess believes that Isabelle will shine next to plain Maude, making it easier for Isabelle to secure a husband of good standing. Isabelle, however, has other plans and the Countess doesn’t count on Maude and Isabelle actually becoming friends.
The way it all plays out was, by turns, predictable (of course there’s going to be a showdown when all these secret plans come to light) and quite intriguing (the aftermath of the showdown surprised the hell out of me). Over the course of the book, Maude’s sense of self and of beauty is challenged, as are her friendships, and her plans for her own future. She is shown to be altogether human and given to treating people badly when she loses sight of What Really Matters, such as loyalty, friendship, being your own person, and acting with courage, even in the face of fear. Thankfully, she learns many a lesson on how to be a better, stronger person and made me proud all over again that I’ve never dyed my hair to get rid of the gray.