Publisher: HarperCollins, 2012
Book Blurb: 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.
My Opinion: Every so often a novel comes along that makes you sit back and realize the author really cares about their craft. For me, The Painted Girls was that novel. It was a bonus that it was a historical fiction novel, which is hard to do well. And an even bigger bonus is that Cathy Marie Buchanan is a fellow Canadian. Three for three, The Painted Girls.
I am, by no means, an expert on Belle Époque Paris, but I feel like Buchanan really took pride in her writing. She didn’t make outlandish claims for her characters, and the Author’s Note at the end details where the few liberties were taken, something I really appreciated.
Buchanan’s writing is sublime. She flits effortlessly through the lives of Marie and her sister Antoinette. While some of the secondary characters are lacking in depth and polish, I found the main characters really made up for it. While Marie is thirteen at the start of the book, she never descends too deeply into the teenage angst that seems to steep books featuring a younger protagonist. Yet, we get a true sense of her age. I never thought she was anything other than a girl just coming into her own. The same can definitely be said for Antoinette.
While The Painted Girls has a light plot, in the sense that it isn’t driven to some great climactic moment where everything comes to a head and then all is well with the world, the story itself is far from light. Buchanan treads the waters of poverty, love, loss, and desperation very well. She toes the line, never going over it, but always describing just enough to convey what life was like for these girls. There is drama, there is laughter. I felt emotionally invested in everything that was happening.
The one thing I didn’t like about The Painted Girls seems small in comparison to all the things I loved. The timeline jumps around a lot. There were times when it was hard to determine how much time had passed between the end of one chapter and the start of another. It was disorienting, and sometimes disconnected me from the story.
Bottom Line: Superbly written character-driven historical fiction.