Cathy Marie Buchanan's The Painted Girls is one of those books I tried not to be intrigued by. And then one day I saw it at Half Price Books, didn't buy it, but then I went back the next day looking for it, and of course it was gone. Live and learn.
The Situation: Antoinette and Marie van Goethem live in late 19th century Paris with their mother and youngest sister, Charlotte. Their father passed away, and their mother works as a laundress, but has a serious codependency on absinthe. With the landlord showing up at the door and threatening eviction over late rent, it becomes necessary for both Marie and Charlotte to join Antoinette in the work force. With pointers from their older sister, both Marie and Charlotte gain entrance into the Paris Opera, while Antoinette stays on as an extra. As she starts earning a reliable wage as a dancer, Marie also catches the eye of Edgar Degas, the French impressionist painter. With all three girls working and Marie showing promise for a career as a ballerina, it looks like the van Goethem sisters may manage to keep a roof over their family's head.
The Problem: While Marie has gained the attention of both Degas and a wealthy gentleman who frequents the opera, Antoinette has caught the attention of a potentially dangerous young man. Soon she is lying and losing precious wages that would have been incredibly useful to the family. With their mother's drunkenness, Antoinette's growing selfishness, Marie's ever increasing anxieties, and Charlotte's pride, it looks like the van Goethem sisters may have a harder time escaping their poverty than they ever imagined. It isn't as simple as earning a wage doing honest work. Being a ballerina is more competitive than Marie had imagined, and Antoinette's mouth and attitude keep getting her into trouble.
Genre, Themes, History: The Painted Girls is a historical fiction novel that involves real people from late 19th France. The main theme seems to be the lack of opportunities available to poor young women in Paris society. Finding honest work to support their family is very difficult for the van Goethem sisters, but it is incredibly easy for them to turn to something like petty theft and prostitution. Marie and Charlotte van Goethem were dancers for the Paris Opera in real life, and Antoinette worked as an extra. Marie also modeled for Edgar Degas and was the subject of many of his drawings, paintings, and even one of his sculptures. Also, Emile Abadie, the troubled young man that Antoinette becomes involved with, was tried for three different murders at the same time that the van Goethem sisters were working as dancers. There is no evidence that they ever interacted or that their paths actually crossed - that part of the story was completely of Buchanan's invention. And the newspaper articles, court transcripts, and critiques that Buchanan placed throughout the novel are faithful to the tone to the original documents. In fact, some of the content is the same as the original documents.
My Verdict:If you're looking to read historical fiction high in drama, almost so much so that it is a little overwhelming and unbelievable, then this novel is for you. Most of the story is incredibly well done, but there are parts that I was just not fully convinced of...like some of the connections between events just weren't there. Some of the emotions that the characters were experiencing just didn't seem believable to me. For instance, I had a hard time believing Marie was as anxious as she was, and I couldn't quite believe that Antoinette was as attached as she was to a man who is clearly dangerous and treats her terribly. However, it is an excellent study of life for young Parisian girls in the late 19th century, and also of the work of Edgar Degas. And even though the story is high in drama, it is not so much that it becomes exhausting. The author kept me interested and invested in the lives of the characters, no matter how ridiculous some of them get.
Favorite Moment: It would be a tie between the moment Antoinette realizes the truth about Emile Abadie, and the moment Charlotte understands what it means to put someone else's needs before her own.
Favorite Character: This is one of those situations where pretty much every character is or becomes pretty detestable. I would pick Alphonse, the sweet baker's son who gives Marie a part-time job in the bakery, but he is in the book so little that I really don't think I know enough about him to label him as a "favorite."
Recommended Reading: I will actually recommend a book that is completely different from this one in that it is a humor novel and not at all serious. Christopher Moore's Sacre Bleu is also about artists and their struggle to create great works of art. Instead of being high in drama though, Moore takes a humorous look at the lives of struggling artists and how easily they are distracted by a pretty face.