Review: The Painted Girls

The Painted Girls

The Painted Girls
By Cathy Marie Buchanan
(Riverhead Hardcover, Hardcover, 9781594486241, January 2013, 368pp.)

The Short of It:

A heart wrenching story of love and survival in 19th century Paris.

The Rest of It:

The Painted Girls is a rich, detailed account of the van Goethem sisters and their struggle to earn a meager living after their father’s sudden death. Antoinette, Marie and Charlotte live with their mother in a shabby, one room flat. Always hungry, and always behind on the rent, they snatch up food scraps whenever they can and what little money they have, is spent on their mother’s absinthe. Literally wasting away, these girls are young and frail and vulnerable and after Antoinette gets kicked out of the ballet for being head strong and difficult, their only hope is for Marie and Charlotte to enter the Paris Opera themselves as petit rats. Petit rats are the lowest level of dancer you can be but they aspire to be part of the quadrille, which would earn them a few more francs for their pocket.

Little Dancer Aged 14
Little Dancer, Aged 14 (Degas)

As the oldest, Antoinette looks out for her sisters and has spent years giving up food so they can have a tiny bit more in their stomachs, but when she falls in love with a real loser, her priorities change. Suddenly, everything that is important to her revolves around Èmile. Marie is the first to notice the change in her sister, and as she struggles with the exhaustion of dancing and working long hours, she begins to resent her sister’s relationship. Things do not come easy for Marie. She is not as attractive as the other girls. Everything she gets, has to be fought for so when they lose her sister’s income, she decides to model for Edgar Degas. The result, is Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (above). But the money is not enough. Modeling turns into prostitution and then Antoinette ends up in real trouble.

What a story!

It’s so interesting to read a book based on fact. I am not a fan of historical fiction. I should rephrase that. It’s not a genre I reach for. However, when I do read it, I find that I like it quite a bit. Buchanan’s take on this story is a little dark with the prostitution/prison aspect of the story and all. I wasn’t expecting it to be so dark,  but it grabbed me and made me feel for these girls. Oh! And the parts about being hungry! They live on hardly anything at all and then they are expected to dance all day long. It’s heartbreaking! A tiny bit of stale bread is a treat to them. But the imagery of the dancing and what they do on stage gives the reader hope for a better life for these girls.

Structurally, I found the pacing of the story just right. I lingered over some parts and read a bit faster to get through the unpleasant parts, but all in all, it was a solid, beautifully rendered take on the van Goethem sisters and their connection to the Degas work you see above.

Source: Sent to me by the publisher via Library Thing.
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

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27 thoughts on “Review: The Painted Girls”

  1. When I first saw the title of your post this morning, I thought to myself, “But, Ti doesn’t usually like historical fiction?” This one must be incredible! I’ve had it on my wishlist for a while…obviously need to get it ordered and read if you give it a thumbs up!

    1. Very true! I like ballet though. I took four whole years of it. It was really good and dark. As you know, the darker, seedier side of life appeals to me.

    1. It was really well done. I read her first book, which I also loved but this one seemed to really come together as far as the characters go.

  2. Here’s my thing – I don’t like historical fiction about British queens. That seems to be a “thing” but not for me. But unique historical fiction? I usually lap it up.

    This sounds depressing but good. Thanks for the review.

    1. British royalty bores me so I can relate. This one was rather juicy. I did not expect the darkness even though another blogger alluded to it in her review. But I liked it The seedy aspect of being a star ballerina and what goes on with these girls trying to get there. A bit grim, but realistic I suppose.

  3. I LOVED this novel…It is one my favorites from this year, and I cannot recommend it enough. I think Buchanan really did this story so well…all aspects of it. i was captivated from the first page.

    1. I was rather captivated as well. She took all the glamour out of the dancing but I suppose when you are dancing to eat, that is what happens!

  4. I really loved this novel. Cathy has become a favorite author of mine. If you haven’t read her first book you should give it a try one day too. Ots really good as well.

  5. I listened to this one on audio, and thought that it was rather good, but not a favorite. I think it was because there were multiple narrators, and some were just better than others. I did find Marie’s story particularly moving though, and thought that that business about her head shape being the “wrong” type to be saddening and frustrating. Degas lost a few points in my estimation. I’m so glad that you loved this one, and you wrote a great review!

    1. The part where the one guy is reading the review of Edgar’s work was brutal! I guess she was really very unattractive. In the paintings and the statue she just seems frail and rather plain to me.

  6. I’ve heard so many good things about this one and am kicking myself that I didn’t buy it when it was a Kindle ‘daily deal’ a while back. Thanks for the review!

  7. I’ve got this in print coming to me soon, and I really look forward to reading it. I’m not a historical fiction person either, but when I do read the genre, I generally feel like my brain is going to explode with curiosity, and end up Googling the hell out of whatever topic is covered.

  8. I am a fan of historical fiction and look forward to reading this book. I bought a copy when it was a kindle deal. How nice that the author stopped by and left a comment!!

  9. Historical fiction doesn’t really scream out to me either–too many of those books about those Tutors (etc) but I’m really looking forward to this one, especially after yours and Lisa’s endorsement. I kind of like dark and after reading The Art Forger late last year I’m curious to learn more about Degas’ art.

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