A heartrending, gripping novel set in belle époque Paris and inspired by the real-life model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged 14 and by the era’s most famous criminal trials.
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 seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where she will be trained to enter the famous Ballet and meet Edgar Degas. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds employment—and the love of a dangerous young man—as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s Naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir. Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change,The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” (from Riverhead Books)
The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan, is not just the story of the famous Impressionist Edgar Degas’ paintings and sculptures, or of the French Opera House and Ballet post revolution, but rather, a story of the depths of sociology, psychology, and the desire of human nature to judge and categorize. However, it’s also the story of overcoming odds, circumstances, and even predestined labels, showing that humankind is redeemable and that people can overtake insurmountable boundaries.
The Painted Girls is an astonishing look inside the poignant world of art, dance, and the modern world of post-revolution France. Intellectually, it made me contemplate and left a lasting impression, while emotionally, it broke my heart and then reclaimed it by the end.
I first wanted to read this book primarily not just for my fondness of history, but also my admiration for Impressionist artist Degas, as well as ballet. My youngest daughter, aged 5, dreams of being a ballerina and we have enjoyed several outings together to an art museum that features one of Degas’ works showcasing dancers. Immediately into reading this novel, I knew I would be absorbing a book that had so much more to it than I realized. Buchanan really delves into the heart of her highly developed characters with this novel and gives us a glimpse of humanity at its ugliest and at its finest.
The story is primarily told through the words of two sisters, Antoinette and Marie van Goethem, by alternating chapters between them to tell the story in each point of view. Antoinette, not set to following rules and basing decisions on emotions, is kicked-out of the ballet early on, and though taking care of her two youngest sisters while their mother works and drowns her sorrows in alcohol, she finds romance with a street thug Emile who makes her feel “adored” and makes him her life’s goal.
Blinded by love, Antoinette and Emile are both are cast in a stage play of the time, L’Assommoir, historically well-known now as a production based on an 1877 book that showcased the lower rung of society and working class debauchery. Much like Degas’ art of the time, the book’s author, Emile Zola, writes a realistic picture (as Degas paints it) of the realism of certain areas of France that were overcome with not enough money, too much drink, and too many seedy relations. Antoinette’s story shows her misfortune as a laundress, her tie to a criminal, and even her dreams of being someone with a life only money can bring.
Meanwhile, Marie begins dancing at the Paris ballet with her younger sister. She works tirelessly in worn tights, shoes and costumes for hours a day with no emotional support, while struggling with the prospect of having a suitor to pay for her progress, which was common place during this time. The grueling work leaves her overly fatigued, but her family needs money. And she desires to progress to the next step up the ladder, which is to be on stage. She wants to be remembered; she wants to be appreciated for her talent. Unlike most from her area, she can read and is intelligent as well. She begins working at a bakery for extra income for private lessons and through hard work is promoted at the ballet.
Prior and during this time Marie also begins to model for Degas in his home studio, where he pays people to pose for him. Marie, in real life and in Buchanan’s fictionalized tale, is his model for his famous Dancer Aged 14. Featuring his work at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881, Degas primarily gives an ode to how these lower class models are predisposed to crime and seedier ways, for instance that their facial structure in some way determines them as evil and not able to be morally sound. His goal of showcasing the realism of these lower subjects is ironically turned to international praise for this little ballerina in today’s society. The statue in wax that Parisians once called ugly and “marked by the hateful promise of every vice” is now an international icon in bronze to the beauty and discipline that is ballet.
Painting above of ballet dancers by Edgar Degas is an example of his work showcasing the life of a dancer. This one I enjoy seeing at the museum by my home in Ohio. On her website, Buchanan features many of his works, as well as the sculpture, that inspired her book. Take a look at www.cathymariebuchanan.com/art.
Information for my photograph above:
Frieze of Dancers, c. 1895, oil on fabric
Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917)
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio
Buchanan, a ballerina and teacher of dance herself over her the course of her life, started at a young age admiring Degas’ portraits of dancers. Later, she fully imagined this eloquent and touching novel, raw and intense, stemming from research on the Van Goethem sisters, the Paris ballet and the social climate, then mixed it with one of the notorious criminal cases of the time period.
The novel is full, rich, and emotional, both dealing with overcoming societal boundaries, sibling rivalry, and the dance that is relationships, yet also a touching glimpse at a sisterly love that overcomes all.
Cathy Marie Buchanan, Biography~
Published January 2013, The Painted Girls received a starred review from Kirkus and is a People Magazine Pick, a Good Housekeeping Book Pick, an Indie Next pick, a USA Today New and Notable selection, a Barnes & Noble Staff Pick, an Entertainment Weekly Must List pick, a Chatelaine Book Club pick and a national bestseller in Canada.
The Day the Falls Stood Still, her debut novel, was a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection, and an IndieNext pick.
Her stories have appeared in many of Canada’s most respected literary journals, and she has received awards from both the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council. She holds a BSc (Honours Biochemistry) and an MBA from Western University. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto. (Photo of Buchanan by Ania Szado)
You can find information on Buchanan, her books, and her writing at www.cathymariebuchanan.com.