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Khanh the Killjoy

Belle Epoque - Elizabeth  Ross "'Mother Nature is not democratic. Look at the orchid compared with the dandelion: one exotic and rare, the other a common weed...And so with beauty. Some have an advantage, some a cross to bear. Some just fade into the background, forever plain and obscure---invisible, inconsequential.'"What a beautiful, unexpected little book. I came in without much expectations, since the premise of a "repoussoir" is not a commonly used concept in fiction. I suppose in modern terms, one could refer to the DUFF. The Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Someone the more-narcissitic than usual beautiful or merely average girl use to enhance their looks. Bring along an ugly fat pal, instantly look better. It's a fairly vile method of using someone, but next to someone who is ugly, a plain person looks better in comparison.Well, in this book, the DUFF is actually a repoussoir, and instead of an actual friend, they are hired companions. Paid to accompany a society lady, paid to blend in, but at the same time, enhance their patron in every way. They are considered to be no more than an accessory. A hat, a brooch, a dab of scent, a repoussoir. They're barely considered human by the people by whom they are hired.Reluctantly dragged into this despicable scene in turn-of-the-century Paris is our heroine, Maude Pichon. She is originally from a small Breton town, she lives with her grocer father. Growing up, she has starry-eyed plans of visiting Paris and having a future outside of her little village, but her dreams draw to a sudden close when she overhears plans being made to wed her to the fat old butcher. She runs away to Paris, where her dreams are shattered. She doesn't dream big; Maude just wants a job, to be able to support herself. Without a reference, she can't even get a job as a shop attendant, one of the few career options open to a young lady at this time. Initially drafted to be a repoussoir, Maude is repelled by the repugnance of the job until she realizes that her pride will not keep her fed, nor will it keep a roof over her heads. With truly no other choice, she swallows her pride and agrees to be a repoussoir. She is employed as a repoussoir by a countess for her daughter. The catch: Maude is not to tell Isabelle of her true job: to enhance Isabelle's looks and personality without her knowledge, and to act as the countess' spy.Being a repoussoir is a horrible existence. Degradation is the job. The women working there are altogether unremarkable, plain, even grotesque in their appearance, and Maude is bitter with shame at where she is in life. Humiliation is a daily occurrence. During their training to be repoussoirs, the women and girls constantly have their faults pointed out to them. Their fatness. Their plainness. Their piggish eyes. Their bony features. Every faulty featured is pointed out---and ironically, prized, since it is that unremarkableness that makes the women so valuable as repoussoirs. Their self-esteem broken, their inner confidence is destroyed, their every fault is crucified. It is all part of the training process (literally, a training exercise comprises the women pointing out to each other their most unattractive features).As hard as the training is, the job itself is much, much harder on the soul. Being a repoussoir itself is an art; the repoussoir does not serve merely as a foil, but to subtly enhance. The repoussoir has to blend into society themselves, they must not be seen as "hired," they must blend into the environment and become one of society perfectly while subtly elevating their employer's assets and features. And the employers can be so cruel."'You are a doll to be thrown across the room in a tantrum. Hearts will be broken and feelings trampled on. You have to be stronger than that.'"I found Maude and Isabelle to be excellent characters. Both are strong, willful in their own way, and both are so well-built as to be completely sympathetic and perfectly imperfect. Their character development and growth are wonderfully done, and completely believable. I loved both characters immensely. Maude herself won me over very quickly. Her story is not an unusual one, a young girl dreaming of a better life, but like so many others, her dreams are destroyed before they even have a chance to grow its wings. I love her spirit. I love her determination. She is determined to make it, to at least survive in Paris, on her own. She needs to prove to the people she left behind that she is worth more than what they think. Her drive, her resolve stands, however much she falters through the humiliation of her work. Maude has so many doubts about herself, thanks to the job; her fragile self-esteem is further degraded by the daily lesson ingrained in her intrinsic in the position of a repoussoir."My position at Durandeau's has confirmed what I always feared. He has managed to solder into my mind with certainty that which my father always implied: that I wasn't good enough, I wasn't pretty enough, that I was unlovable. Like other facts so uncomfortable to face, I have decided to fold it away in a drawer in my heart, along with the death of my mother and other hurts. That drawer is locked shut."Lest you think she is a hopeless romantic dreamer, she is not. She is practical...even so, her job and the beauty of the world she is exposed to through being around Isabelle gives her wild flights of fancies which she knows is impossible. She is not stupid; Maude completely recognizes the fulitity of her highest hopes as well as her own hypocrisy at times. Still, a girl can daydream. Maude's conflict over the job for which she is hired and her true friendship with Isabelle is well-written, well-developed, and entirely believable.Isabelle is an equally enjoyable character. I would say her character is more developed throughout the book than Maude's despite the fact that she is not the narrator. Initially, we see Isabelle as Maude sees her, a spoiled, willful heiress who doesn't appreciate how lucky she is. She is initially hateful, sulky, a brat in every sense of the word. Over time, as we get to know her better, we learn that Isabelle is so much more than what she seemed. She is not an enfant terrible, she is a brilliant young woman who, like Maude, wants more than what life is trying to give her. They may have different backgrounds, different dreams, different aspirations in life, but deep down Maude and Isabelle are not so dissimilar in their need for something better.The setting is so beautiful. One can really visualize late 19th century Paris from the lovely and atmospheric descriptions. From the lowly and poor neighborhood of Montparnasse, to the salons, to the gilded opera houses, everything is exquisitely depicted. I particularly enjoyed the wisecracks concerning the Eiffel Tower as it is being built."'Eiffel's tower is becoming a monstrosity indeed,' says a man with military posture. 'A blight on the skyline with each day that passes.''It won't last: it will be torn down in a year and we'll get our Paris back,' assures a woman with a shimmering sapphire at her throat.'"The writing is spectacular, stunning. Maude's emotional states and feelings are so incredibly well-described. The quality of the writing here is truly a work of art. I'd give more examples, but I don't want to end up quoting entire paragraphs, you must read this for yourself. My only complaint with this book is the forced insta-love with the artist Paul Villette, the "disheveled bohemian," the constant drunkard, the failed artist that nobody truly gets. They just don't understand my work, man! He's the definition of a turn-of-the-century hipster, he dresses in dirty, ill-fitting suits, he gets drunk, he calls (out loud) for his muse to grace his works...the romance between him and Maude felt so incredibly forced, and I find it unbelievable that the practical Maude would even give that drunk wastrel wanna-be-artist a second glance.