Edgar Degas’ sculpture The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen Years is arguably one of the most famous sculptures in the world, and I think it is much more striking in person than it is in a photograph. The girl seems so delicate and dainty when one sees the sculpture in person, and one could see how that suggestion of fragility would inspire Cathy Marie Buchanan to write The Painted Girls. Her novel is about the life she has imagined for the model for the sculpture, a girl named Marie van Goethem. In real life, little is known about van Goethem’s life, but Buchanan did some research on the life of young “ballet girls” from that era in Paris and written a whole backstory for this girl.
Marie van Goethem is the middle child of three girls, living in poverty with an absinthe addicted mother. Her older sister Antoinette had previously been a ballet girl, a petit rat, but had lost her place mostly due to attitude problems. With few options available, the family desperately has the two youngest daughters audition for the ballet school, and both are accepted, which brings in a few extra francs to the family. Marie and Antoinette both want something better for themselves, mostly love and security, but have very few options available. Marie ends up modelling for an artist named Degas, and Antoinette falls in love with a rakish young man. Things, of course, get complicated for all of the girls.
This book is an interesting study of a certain subset of girls who would have been living in Paris at this time, particularly in the world surrounding the ballet. However, it is also focuses closely on the relationship of the sisters, which is not something I have seen in many of the books I have been reading lately. The men in their lives are just passing characters, and their role in the story is centred largely around how they affect the relationships of the van Goethem girls. The chapters alternate between the voices of Maria and Antoinette, and Buchanan does a good job of making each distinct throughout the novel.
The Painted Girls was a really enjoyable read, and I think I am going to track down Buchanan’s first novel.