Belle Epoque

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Belle Epoque Book Poster Image
Charming story of plucky plain Jane in 1880s Paris.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The backdrop of 1880s Paris includes details about building the Eiffel Tower, early photography, the bohemian Left Bank, and class distinctions. French phrases, easy to understand from the context, are sprinkled throughout. Some aspects of daily life peep through, but aren't a focus.

Positive Messages

Maude goes from thinking she's unlovable because she's not pretty enough to understanding that beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder but also in the "quality of person you are." She hurts people she cares about and wrestles with her own hypocrisy, but learns from her mistakes, makes amends, and matures in the end.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Adults model a wide range of behavior from caring concern to vain self interest, and none is downright evil. Maude is plucky, thoughtful, and learns to follow her dream and put looks aside. Her friend Isabelle is interested in science and education and a good role model for becoming independent and pursuing your own passion, but is not kind to servants. Love interest Paul is a struggling musician who sets Maude straight but drinks too much, at least when he's upset.

Violence
Sex

At a museum Maude is embarrassed by a painting of a nude, depicted from behind (Ingres' "Bather"). The painting is analyzed as a work of art and the nude herself is not described. The romance leads to two chaste kisses on the mouth.

Language

A minor character uses the French swear word "con," roughly equivalent to "a--hole."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults and older teens drink alcohol in social situations or with meals, usually in moderation. Several characters are seen a few times in states ranging from slightly tipsy to falling-down drunk, but are not depicted glamorously or favorably at all. The only consequence is when one character suffers a bad hangover. Sixteen-year-old Maude only ever takes a few sips at balls or formal dinners, but she lives in the bohemian Left Bank in the 1880s and bars, music halls, and drinking permeate the atmosphere: Maude passes a cafe window and sees a woman who is essentially Degas' "L'Absinthe." Two characters are depicted smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Belle Epoque is a historical novel set in 1880s Paris about a young woman discovering her own self worth and pursuing her dreams. There's absolutely no violence and only two sweet kisses, making it OK for younger tweens who can handle the occasional scenes of excessive drinking, which is not glamorized. The message that beauty comes from within is one young women can't read too often.

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What's the story?

Young Maude Pichon in desperation takes a job with an agency as a repoussoir, someone who makes another seem more beautiful in contrast to her own plainness. She struggles with the ethics of this while getting swept up the glamorous world of the Paris aristocracy in the 1880s. Genuine friendship grows with her client's daughter Isabelle, the one she's supposed to make look better, until Isabelle learns who Maude really is. Eventually the two are able to put an end to the agency and pursue their own dreams, free from the clutches of Isabelle's socially ambitious mother.

Is it any good?

BELLE EPOQUE is full of small historical details that will resonate with those who know a little about the Impressionist painters. But the details of daily life that might have given the novel broader appeal are glossed over. Still, the backdrop is interesting and unusual enough to enchant imaginative readers. Maude is easy to relate to, and her determination and struggles eventually lead the way to a contented life in which she can love and be loved while she pursues her dream of becoming a professional photographer.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what makes a person lovable. Do you think good looks make someone more lovable?

  • Does the historical setting make the existence of the agency maude works for more believable? Would it be believable if the story were set in today's world?

  • At the time it was built, a lot of people thought the Eiffel Tower was hideous. Can you imagine Paris without it now? Could anything symbolize the city so well?

Book details

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For kids who love historical fiction and strong female characters

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