Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book Reviews Reloaded:The Painted Girls

This article first appeared on East Niagara Post on October 21, 2014. It is repeated here as I work to put all my book reviews in one place. They will be posted on Thursdays and only be altered from the original in that I will add publisher information and pages. Hopefully, by revisiting these reviews, other people might find a book they'd like to pick up for their own enjoyment.

The Painted Girls - Cathy Marie Buchanan
Riverhead Books
416 Pages

The Painted Girls is a historical-fiction novel set in Paris 1878-1885. The novel centers around the van Goethem sisters and ballet at the Paris Opera House intertwined with the art of Edgar Degas as well as the criminal lives of Emile Abadie and Michel Knoblach.

The story begins in dark days for the van Goethem family. The patriarch has just passed away, and the mother is spiraling deep into an absinthe stupor while struggling as a laundress to keep her family clothed and housed. The three sisters, Antoinette, Marie and Charlotte are forced to mostly fend for themselves. Antoinette, the oldest, brings in a little more money as an extra at the opera house. Her younger sisters are accepted into the same prestigious school where the hopes are they will earn parts on stage to supplement the household income.

When Antoinette’s outspoken manner starts to alienate her from some of the very people who are able to help her, she falls under the spell of the mysterious Emile Abadie. Marie, initially reluctant to join the dance, finds herself becoming one of the better dancers at the school. She also comes under the eye of Edgar Degas who feels she is his muse for several of his works, including the sculpture, Little Dancer Aged 14.  Meanwhile the youngest, Charlotte, disappears into the background of the story to make only sporadic appearances throughout the narrative.

Behind the glamour of the Paris Opera House and our romantic vision of Paris, is the dark reality of that city in the late 19th-century. While people were enamored with the sparkle and glitter the ballet had to offer, behind the shine was the grime of everyday life. Families struggled to make a living. Some of their options were legitimate enterprises. Too often, the easier path was burglary and prostitution. This extended even to the ballet. For a girl to ascend to the pinnacle of the dance, it took more than sheer talent. Sometimes it took the abonnes, the wealthy male subscribers to the ballet, with their money and favors to push along their favorite girls.

Marie models for Degas to earn some extra money. At the same time, she finds an abonne of her own, in Monsieur Lefebvre. What costs come with this sponsorship and will she be able to fulfill those commitments? At the same time, what will Antoinette do for what she thinks is love? Despite the fact that each of the sisters feels they can do it on their own, they slowly come to realize that they, in fact, do need each other.

As I stated at the beginning, this was a challenging book for me. While all four of my children have taken ballet, I did not know most of the ballet terms from the book and spent some time looking up their meanings. That aside, I thought this book was fantastically written. I liked Buchanan’s previous book (The Day the Falls Stood Still) and I liked this one just as much.

Buchanan not only sets the scene of late 19th-century Paris with great aplomb, she builds characters that are deep, believable and evocative. She takes on the lives of real people and brings them back to life for her readers. Her rich prose gives the reader a 400-page glimpse into the lives of the van Goethem sisters and Edgar Degas to a lesser extent.

Sometimes with writing historical fiction, authors do a disservice to the real people they are reliving. Cathy Marie Buchanan takes the real lives of several people and builds a world around them steeped in history and just enough imagination to keep the reader involved. She makes you wonder what decision each of the girls is going to make and where each will wind up.

Craig Bacon spends a lot of time at the dance studio. With four daughters, that probably will not end anytime soon.