Published January 2013 by Penguin Group
Source: I bought this one to read with the Omaha Bookworms for discussion with the author
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.
|Dancer At Rest by Edgar Degas*
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.
As she did with The Day The Falls Stood Still, Buchanan took her inspiration (in this case, from a BBC documentary about Degas' famous sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen Years) and delved into the background of an obscure figure in history, blending historical fact with very believable fiction.
The novel develops around Marie and Antoinette, building a their story around other historical facts and figures. Buchanan is masterful at weaving her story around history without playing fast and loose with the facts. Here she has merged what is known about the van Goethem sisters, Degas, and a man named Emile Abadie into a work of fiction. Clearly Buchanan has done her research but the book never feels as though she is working to teach the reader every thing she learned..
|Emile Abadie (left) as painted by Edgar Degas
While Marie struggles with the realities of making a living in the world of ballet, it is Antoinette who finds herself in deeper and deeper trouble as her relationship with Abadie becomes all consuming. Buchanan ties the stories of the sisters, Abadie, and Degas together using the then popular study of physiognomy (the supposed art of using facial features to determine a person's character) to explore deeper moral questions. Is Marie bound to end badly because of her bone structure? Or does poverty play a bigger role in determining what lengths a person may go to? Is there ever any justification for "immoral" behavior?
At it's heart, though, The Painted Girls is the story of family, of the bond between sisters. You can't help but grow to care about the characters in this book, even some who may not deserve your concern, and that is where Buchanan truly shines.
|Little Dancer Aged Fourteen Years by Edgar Degas*
*Marie van Goethem was the model for both of these works.