Title: The Painted Girls
Author: Cathy Marie Buchanan
What it’s about: Paris, 1878. The van Goethem sisters struggle to survive in the poorest neighborhood of Paris. Their father has died and their mother must be constantly watched lest she squander the little money she makes as a laundress on absinthe. Eldest sister Antoinette is sporadically employed as a walker-on at the opera, but the family’s best hope lies with the youngest two daughters, Marie and Charlotte, who have begun their training as petit rats, the youngest ballet girls. Both hope to be promoted first to the quadrille and then up the ranks of the ballet corps. It’s not only a way to make a decent living, but a chance to rise above their birth and become something beautiful and admired.
Painter Edgar Degas sits in on each class, sketching the dancers in a novel way: as they are in the practice room—small, tired and thin—rather than as they are on the stage. He chooses Marie as one of his models, creating portraits of her that ultimately result in a sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Marie is grateful for the extra money and finds that she is a quick study, becoming one of the more promising students in the class though she began her training later than the other girls. She dares to hope that she may be promoted to the quadrille, but is haunted by the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with her. Marie is a student of the most recent theories on human physiology, which link physical features like a broad forehead or large jaw with criminal behavior and moral degradation. When Marie looks in the mirror, she can’t help but see these features…and wonder when her baser nature will make itself known.
She also sees these features in Antoinette’s lover, Emile Abadie, a roguish youth without a home who spends his money on rounds of drinks at the cafes. Antoinette is enamored with the way he adores her, the pretty words he showers on her, and the two become more deeply involved as they work together as permanent extras in a sensational new play depicting the bleak lives of the working class—a plot all too close to home. Blinded by her devotion to Emile, Antoinette refuses to admit that she is drifting away from her sisters and compromising her chance at a good and honest life.
The Painted Girls was everything I look for in historical fiction. All of the main characters are real figures, but their stories have been massaged in some cases to intersect. Marie really was the model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen and Antoinette really did act in the adaptation of Zola’s naturalist novel on the stage, but the insertion of Abadie (another historical figure) into her life is a liberty—but one I didn’t mind. Since Buchanan has chosen to chronicle the lives of such peripheral figures—not kings and queens, but average people—there’s little chance of jarring us with a bit of historical play. The Painted Girls concentrates on the story of sisterhood and finds its strength therein. It’s an absorbing novel, balancing the emotional weight of poverty and class strife with the grace of the ballet and the hope of childhood.