Title: The Painted Girls
Genre: Historical Fiction
Author: Cathy Marie Buchanan
Publisher: Riverhead Books, Jan. 2013
Source: Public Library
Sexy Rating: 5-not explicit
Description from Amazon.com:
A heartrending, gripping novel about two sisters in Belle Époque Paris and the young woman forever immortalized as muse for Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.
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.
This book is based on the true story of the fourteen year old ballet dancer, Marie Van Goethem, who modeled for Edgar Degas’s famous statue Little Dancer.
It is also the story of her family; an alcoholic mother, older sister Antoinette who became a prostitute and younger sister Charlotte who became a rather famous ballerina. Left to fend for themselves upon the death of their husband and father the family did what they had to do to house, feed and clothe themselves. For penniless Parisian women in the 1870’s there were menial jobs (the mother became a laundress) or prostitution (The mother and Antoinette) or go on the stage as a ballerina or actress (the route that Marie and Charlotte took).
I enjoyed this book for the realistic look at poor women in the late 1800’s. Not so much different in Paris as in the USA or England. It is a well-researched book and the look into the ballet was also very interesting. There were men of wealth who came to observe the young ballerinas and would offer some their “protection” which was not always protective. Marie was fortunate in that Edgar Degas paid her to only model. But later she met another man who wanted more from her.
This is a very slow starting book and if I had not been reading it for my book club discussion I might have given up. However at about the 150 page point this became a very engaging story. I realize that not all readers are willing to wait that long into a book but this one did pay off in the end.
BTW- My book club agrees with my review here.