The Painted Girls
by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Release Date: January 10th, 2013
2013 Riverhead Books (Imprint of Penguin)
Hardcover Edition; 357 Pages
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from publisher
4.5 / 5 Stars
Paris. 1878. Following
their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives
upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress
mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their
lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched
to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventy francs a month, she will
be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette,
finds work—and the love of a dangerous young man—as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.
Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modelling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her
image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Antoinette, meanwhile, descends
and lower in society, and must make the choice between a life of honest
labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the
Parisian demimonde—that is, unless her love affair derails her
The Painted Girls was a fascinating novel about the lives of two young girls, Antoinette and Marie van Goethem, during nineteenth century Paris. The girls live with their absinthe-addicted widowed mother and struggle to make ends meet as their mother flits through their lives at whim and as a result, both become involved in some way with the Opera de Paris as it pays them a stipend each month. While Antoinette attemped to get walk-on roles to the various plays that are mounted all of the time, Marie and her younger sister, Charlotte, are accepted to the ballet school and begin training to enter the famous ballet house. You know, it wasn't until I was halfway through the novel that I learned the events are based on true events and it piqued my interest even more; after that, I had a hard time putting it down and became invested in these women's lives.
At the beginning I didn't really care for Antoinette and thought her to be quite selfish and motivated solely by the desire to be loved by someone else; I also thought her foolish and insensitive. It's amazing how your perceptions about someone can change quite drastically, and as the story evolved, it was Antoinette to whom I really hoped would turn her life around as I saw the more sensitive side to her nature. Here was a sister who would give up food for herself because her sisters were starving, who would stay up late to darn her sisters' skirts and stockings, who would take the time to brush their hair and pick flowers to make sure they looked decent at the ballet school, and would do anything to ensure their success, giving up a lot of herself in the process. And it was only as the novel progressed that you saw this in her nature. Yes, Antoinette did many impulsive things for the sake of this man she fell in love with, a man who definitely was no good for her or her family, but her basic nature was a caring one, and she could not believe that someone would use someone else so badly, until she had no choice but to open her eyes and see it for herself. And it was a pain I felt right deep down to my core for her.
And I find it interesting how I loved Marie's character at the beginning, but as I grew to like Antoinette more and more, I began to like Marie less and less, almost as if the author felt that a reader couldn't like both the sisters at the same time. And it's not that I didn't want either of them to succeed, as I did, and I remember holding my breath as I was reading, hoping they would both come out of their situations with their heads held high.
Paris is such an interesting, fascinating, and remarkable city, and I really enjoy any historical novel set here. I love ballet and enjoyed the historical lesson of the ballet girls, and the painter Degas and how he created some of his masterpieces. I also really enjoyed the discourses between Emile Zola and Degas about the physiognomy of man and how one can detect whether one will grow up to be a criminal. The author did a great job bringing in the murder trials and tying them to Antoinette and Marie in such a smooth and interesting way. The little newspaper tidbits fed into parts of the novel also added a nice touch to the story and I thought they were quite interesting; it made me want to do some research of my own, but I held back until I finished reading as I didn't want to spoil anything. There was also an interesting theme running through the novel about one's appearance and how that plays an important role in one's future endeavours and success; it certainly is thought-provoking and would be a good discussion for any book club. The whole controversy surrounding Degas' sculpture and what was written about it and how that must have affected the real Marie during that time period is definitely something upon which to reflect and whether it had anything to do with the choices she made for her future. Definitely interesting stuff.
The Painted Girls was a very detailed, well-researched novel of three sisters struggling to live in 1880s Paris. I enjoyed the various descriptions of Paris life during this time period as enjoyed learning more about the lives of the ballet girls and the difficulties they must have had just to survive day to day. Even the ending was quite satisfying as I didn't know what to expect. I am looking forward to reading more novels by this author in the future and highly recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in ballet, sister relationships, and historical Paris.