Belle Epoque

I finished reading Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross the other day and I still can’t really make up my mind what I thought of it. It’s about Maude, who runs away to Paris and takes a job as a repoussoir, which is a professional ugly friend – your wealthy client hires you to stand around and make her look good by comparison.

There’s some fun stuff, like running away to Paris, old-timey photography, the Eiffel tower in progress, fancy clothes and balls. (I like the idea of a ball but would hate to actually be called upon to wear a corset and dance in public. Good thing I can read about them in my pajamas.)

But the premise got on my nerves, like when people talk about brides who deliberately pick hideous bridesmaids dresses so they can look good at their friends’ expense. Because, y’know, women are vain and secretly hate each other. Isn’t it cute? Blech. (Although there are bridesmaids dresses out there that seem to defy any other explanation, I think there’s just something about weddings that causes epic lapses in judgement. Not, alas, limited to dresses.)

On the other hand, when beauty has high stakes – like if you are a Parisian socialite and marriage is your best/only career option – surely it isn’t shallow and petty to go for it. Is hiring a professional ugly friend and hoping for an aristocratic marriage all that different from paying tuition and hoping for your dream job?

Oh, socialites, I can’t stop with the side-eye, but I do see your predicament. What can you do when the only way to win is to be effortlessly gorgeous in a way that no one actually is?

“Overthrow the patriarchy” is probably a better answer than “Hire a professional ugly friend.” But I do see how the latter is simpler.

Anyway, of course Maude meets a boy who thinks she’s beautiful. And on the one hand, good for her! She’s had a rough time and who am I to begrudge her a little lovin’? It’s Paris after all. But on the other hand, can’t we have a story about an ugly woman who is actually ugly? I know, I know, eye of the beholder and all that. But it irks me that so often the message is that of course we’re all beautiful! Body image! Self esteem! I would so much rather it was that beauty is not a requirement.

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