Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan. Riverhead Books 2013

The story starts in 1878 Paris, in the slums where the van Goethem sisters live with their alcoholic, recently widowed mother. Sources of income are few and far between; the mother works long hours of hard labor at a laundry and doesn’t make enough to feed the family. In the France of this era, there is no safety net for the poor and young girls are pretty much regarded as useless, evil parasites. The girls go to the Paris Opera, taking ballet lessons and hoping to get hired by the Ballet, where they will not only be paid a semi-decent wage but will be exposed to men that can afford to keep them, a way out of the gutter.

Antoinette, the oldest at 17, has had her chance and proved not a good enough dancer. Now she must find another way to earn money, and her two younger sisters, Marie, 14, and Charlotte, 7, will make their attempts at the Ballet.

Marie gets lucky, in a way: Edgar Degas, not yet a famous artist, wants her to model for him. She is paid well for this, although it exposes her to a man who says he is an artist but never seems to actually draw during modeling sessions. Antoinette finds various employment, and finds herself in her first love relationship with a young man who gets accused of murder. The story is told from Antoinette’s and Marie’s points of view in alternate chapters, and their stories twine around each other as they try to find happiness in a world that despises them and are tested to their limits of what they’ll do for love. Through the story runs the theory of the time, that a person’s facial features show their inner selves. People with low foreheads, bad teeth, and forward thrusting jaws are branded as stupid, lazy, and natural criminals.

The van Goethem sisters were real; Marie was the model for Degas’s famous sculpture ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’. Charlotte danced with the Ballet for years, advancing to the rank of sujet, a part time soloist. Antoinette’s lover was also real, although chances are the two never met in real life. There are two main themes in the book: sisterly love, and the way the poor were treated at the time. The girls and the streets of Paris come to life in these pages. I rooted for them all the way and stayed up late reading. 


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