Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):  A gripping novel set in Belle Époque Paris and inspired by the real-life model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen and a notorious criminal trial of the era.

Paris. 1878. 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 from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventy francs a month, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work—and the love of a dangerous
young man—as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modelling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Antoinette, meanwhile, descends lower and lower in society, and must make the choice between a life of honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde—that is, unless her love affair derails her completely.

And here's what I thought:  I thought the author did a really nice job of bringing together not only interesting and well-developed characters, but also in how she included so many details of life at that time, in Paris.   I found the story completely engrossing, and felt like I came away with a real understanding of what life could have been like for one of those dancers, and also, for the ones who weren't successful as dancers.    The choices facing young women in that time weren't that varied, and it was really interesting to read about the decisions that Marie and Antoinette both made, in order to survive.   I felt the author brought Degas' paintings to life --- and did it beautifully.

The pacing is pretty even, and there is tension throughout the book, so I felt like I was connected to the characters and really cared about what was happening to them, and it kept me turning the pages.

There is an author's note at the back of the book which explained that this book "is largely in keeping with the known facts of the van Goethem sisters' early lives."  She relied on historical information about not only these girls but also about other aspects of the story, like work life, and life in general in Paris at the time.

First lines:  Monsieur LeBlanc leans against the doorframe, his arms folded over a belly grown round on pork crackling.  A button is missing from his waistcoat, pulled too tight for the threads to bear. Maman wrings her hands- laundress' hands, marked by chapped skin, raw knuckles.  "But, Monsieur LeBlanc," she says, "we just put my dead husband in the ground."


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