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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.
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