Cathy Marie Buchanan has taken French Impressionist Edgar Degas’ famous statue, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, and spun it into a piece of historical fiction that will probably really appeal to some people, but with which I had a love/hate relationship. The Painted Girls is the story of sisters Marie and Antoinette van Goethem, who live with their widowed, absinthe addicted mother and younger sister, Charlotte, in Paris in 1878.
The novel alternates between elder sister Antoinette’s story and Marie’s as they struggle to survive extreme poverty and a mother who just doesn’t seem capable of taking care of them. The only way out of their dire situation is if Marie makes it into the Paris Opera (Antoinette tried, but didn’t have the talent) as a ballet dancer.
With the news that Maman is sending us to the dance school, Charlotte threads her fingers together, knuckles whitening as she works to hide her joy. I keep my face still, my dismay to myself. The petit rats – the scrawny, hopeful girls, vying for the quickest feet, the lightest leap, the prettiest arms – are babies, like Charlotte, some as young as six. It puts my nerves jumping, the idea of me – a thirteen-year-old – lost among them at the barre, rats who earn their name by scurrying along the Opera corridors, hungry and dirty and sniffing out crumbs of charity.
It is here that she comes to the attention of Mr. Degas, who hires her to model for him. Marie wants something more for her life and she is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it. That is not to say that she consistently makes wise choices, only that the desire for a better life is what drives her.
Antoinette’s journey is slightly more bumpy. She has already been turned out of the ballet as she is too old and not talented enough. She understands Marie’s talents, though, and works to ensure she has the lessons she needs to progress and food in her belly. Then she meets Emile Abadie, a shifty boy who “is not much to look at …with that scrub-brushy hair of his creeping low on his forehead and his black eyes sinking too deep beneath the weighty ridge of his brow and his jaw looking like the sort of those on dogs it is best to steer away from in the streets.” Emile is a charmer though and even when he abuses Antoinette, she stays by his side.
The Painted Girls evokes the Belle Époque period in Paris, a period which is, ironically, characterized by optimism. Art, music, literature and scientific discoveries all flourished during the period and Buchanan makes the most of them including bringing Zola’s masterpiece L’Assommoir to the stage.
Despite the novel’s merits (and there are many) I found the book overwritten. Not badly written, the language is often quite beautiful, just over-written. The sisters’ journey was intriguing, I am a fan of both the ballet and Degas, but at times I have to admit that it was a bit of a slog.