Emilienne: A Novel of Belle Époque Paris

With her new book, Pamela Billings Ewen brings us back to a time in France before World War I, when the lovers of wealthy and influential men went out with them in public, setting trends and making waves throughout Paris. One of these women was Émilienne d’Alençon, a dancer turned courtesan in the early twentieth century. She lived a vivid, fascinating life, but like so many women of the time, she has been largely forgotten.

In the pages of this novel, at least, she lives again, though at times she hardly feels real. Part of this is because of how easily she rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, and how different the life of a woman was a hundred years ago, both from our own lives today and how we often imagine their lives. Part, however, is because Émilienne’s life is given to us in snippets. We’re given many of her thoughts and plans, but the rest of her world can be flat and shallow, as everyone else in the story only exists in relation to her. I enjoyed this book for its beauty, but I often found that it lacked depth.