Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Book Review: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

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Click here to purchase The Painted Girls

Book Synopsis (via amazon.com)

A heartrending, gripping novel about two sisters in Belle Époque Paris.

1878 Paris. 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 seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.

Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other.

My Thoughts…

This was one of my Goodreads book club selections for the month of February.  I was thrilled when it won out in the polls, since it seemed right up my alley.   I am fascinated with books that create a back story for famous works of art, in this case The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Edgar Degas.

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Little Dancer Aged Fourteen
Edgar Degas was a famous French impressionist who created many drawings, paintings, and sculptures during the mid 1800s until the early 1900s.  Degas was specifically interested in dance, with many of his artworks portraying dancers.  One of his more famous works, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, was the inspiration for Buchanan’s The Painted Girls. 

Click here to learn more about Edgar Degas.

I actually listened to this on audiobook instead of buying the book in print.  I listen to audiobooks via Hoopla, a free online resource where you can borrow movies, music, audiobooks, and ebooks by using your library card.  If you have never used Hoopla, it is definitely something to look into since its FREE.   I only recently started listening to audiobooks after downloading one during a long car trip.  I have to say they are very convenient!   I am now able to “read” so many more books this way!  I listen to them in the car, at the gym, on walks, making dinner, etc.  I will say that if possible, listening to The Painted Girls on audiobook is the way to go.  Not having any experience with the French language, I would never have pronounced any of the names correctly.   Plus French is such a beautiful language, so it really enriched my reading experience to have it read to me in a French accent.

The point of view shifts back and forth between two sisters, Marie & Antoinette van Goethem.  I was completely engrossed with their individual stories.  Antoinette, the older sister whose sharp tongue and quick whit often gets her into trouble, and Marie, an aspiring dancer full of drive and dedication.  A central theme in the book is lower class destitution.  Buchanan, in my opinion, is a very gifted writer who was able to actually make me feel the despair that she was trying to convey.

“It is about being born down trodden and staying that way.  Hard work makes no difference, he is saying.  My lot, the lots of those around me, were cast the moment we were born into the gutter to parents who never managed to step outside the gutter themselves.”

Antoinette’s story is that of a young girl who gets involved with the wrong boy.  The old saying that “love makes you do crazy things,” comes into play here.  I was at war with myself for most of the book with my feelings for Antoinette.  My feelings shifted from respect, to pity, to hatred, and finally back to respect.  In the end, I liked the character Antoinette; she makes some bad decisions in life, but deep down, she is a good person.

Marie doesn’t fair much better than her older sister.  This book really gets into the “nitty gritty” of what it was like to be an aspiring lower class dancer during this time in France.

“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 us as queens of the opera stage instead of scamps with cracking knees and heaving ribs and ever-bleeding toes.”

In order to bring in some additional income for her family, Marie starts modeling for an artist, Edgar Degas.  One of the outcomes of the modeling is the infamous statue, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.  Controversy ensues, which ultimately leads to catastrophy.  One of my only critiques of this book would be that I wanted a little more from the character Edgar Degas.  I felt that his character was underdeveloped, especially since the entire inspiration behind this book is one of his works.

It was heartbreaking, and often disturbing, to read about what some of these girls did to elevate themselves in the French opera.  I will forewarn any potential readers that this book has some graphic scenes.  I would recommend this book to those who enjoy more tragic historical fiction, those interested in learning more about the French opera in the late 1880’s, and anyone who enjoyed Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Click here to read an excerpt from The Painted Girls

About the Author (via amazon.com)

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CATHY MARIE BUCHANAN’s The Painted Girls is a #1 National Bestseller in Canada, a New York Times bestseller, and has garnered rave reviews and been showered with special attention–everything from selection as a People Magazine pick to inclusion in Entertainment Weekly’s Must List to being named a best book of 2013 by NPR, Good Housekeeping and Goodreads. Her debut novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, is a New York Times bestseller and a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection. She holds a BSc (Honours Biochemistry) and an MBA from Western University. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto with her husband and three sons.

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