The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Published: 2013, Riverhead Books
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 357 pages
Source: Borrowed from library
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We are the daughters of sewing maids and fruit peddlers, charwomen and laundresses, dressed up and painted to look like something we are not. All the years of practicing, the sweat and toil, the muscles aching at the end of the day, it comes down to learning trickery—to leap with the lightness that lets the theatergoers think of us as queens of the Opéra stage instead of scamps with cracking knees and heaving ribs and ever-bleeding toes. Sometimes I wonder, though, if for the very best ballet girls, the trickery is not a little bit real, if a girl born into squalor cannot find true grace in the ballet.
The van Goethem family undergoes a dramatic upheaval when the father of the household dies after many months of illness. With their mother making scanty wages as a laundress, a majority of which are spent then on Absinthe, sisters Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte seek ways to sustain their family. Charlotte has a natural talent for ballet, and so she applies for work and training at the Paris Opéra. At fourteen, Marie is technically too old to start work as a ballerina-in-training, but a stroke of luck and unexpected talent lands her a position there as well. The Opéra is not a possibility for Antoinette, who failed her examination to progress to the next level years ago. Eventually she is able to find work acting in a stage production of Émile Zola's latest work.
The semblance of stability that the sisters form through their jobs is just that, however; a semblance. Antoinette knows that her position with the play is temporary, and that soon she'll be out of a job. Marie, who for years has been told that a more scholarly life is expected of her, finds that she quite enjoys ballet, but her examinations are approaching—the very same ones that Antoinette failed, and she's already at a distinct disadvantage having started training so late.
The Painted Girls presents a portrait of Antoinette and Marie's lives over the course of three years as they struggle with finances, relationships, and what to do with their lives. It skillfully combines the few known historical facts about the van Goethem sisters, immortalized most famously through Edgar Degas' sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, with the infamous murder trial of Émile Abadie and Pierre Gille.
This is not a happy book. I just wanted to make this clear upfront. The lives that Antoinette and Marie lead are not pleasant ones, nor should readers expect to find any sort of idealized Paris within these pages. Even with bits of humor and hope scattered throughout, the most pervasive feeling is one of despair. Marie, at least, has some concrete goals that she hopes to reach as a dancer for the Opéra, but Antoinette really has nothing. Just a lifetime of hard labor in the hopes of making ends meet. So deeply entrenched is the van Goethem family in the lower-class dregs of society, that it appears that the Opéra is really the only feasible way for the girls to do something more with their lives. It is depressing to read about such circumstances, which only become bleaker as the novel progresses.
The story's narrative shifts between Antoinette and Marie, and for once I found that I didn't mind. Both characters offered distinct, important aspects to the story as a whole. Marie was much more relatable to me personally, well-spoken and observant with a drive to succeed. Antoinette's sections were more difficult, as her situations were frequently unhappy and unfair. Through Antoinette, however, I felt as though I had a more dynamic portrait of the era, while the majority of Marie's narration involves training for the ballet or modeling for extra fees. Another aspect that enabled the dual narration to work so well was that I never had any trouble distinguishing each girl's narration. I frequently find that in stories with more than one narrator, either the narrators end up sounding too similar, or else I just lack the ability to identify the differences between them. Marie and Antoinette's voices just sounded very different, however, and I genuinely looked forward to each part.
Interestingly, the complete and utter lack of hope for the betterment of their lives was not the most frustrating part for me. The often-strained relationship between Antoinette and Marie takes that honor, if you can call it that. While the misunderstandings that develop between them are more indicative of their lives as a whole rather than controllable individual actions, it was still quite difficult to see them allow their relationship to be torn apart. At one point Marie admits to Antoinette that she's the reason the family has been able to survive, and that she's her best friend. The ending (which, with its time lapse, functions almost like an epilogue) actually does provide some resolution on that end, fortunately.
One thing that The Painted Girls has done is to reinvigorate my love of historical fiction. After fantasy, historical fiction is probably my favorite genre. It's so fascinating to learn about what people used to do and how they lived. Even though Antoinette and Marie's lives are hardly enviable, I appreciated forming an understanding of how pivotal being accepted to the Opéra was for young impoverished girls. Through the trial of Antoinette's lover Émile Abadie, Buchanan also explores late nineteenth-century ideas of physiognomy and its links to criminality. And, of course, reading so much about Degas' art ensured that I'd spend quite a bit of time looking it up.
I quite enjoyed reading The Painted Girls. It's not a book I'd recommend to everyone, given its bleak subject matter and mature themes, but I would not hesitate to encourage lovers of historical fiction, historical Paris, realistic sister relationships, and strong writing to give it a try. It is a well-researched work of historical fiction.
Rating: 4.5 stars