Monday, May 12, 2014

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Behind the Ballet (Art)

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan brings the model of Degas’s statuette, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, to life. In this novel, Cathy Marie Buchannan takes us into the gritty world of three impoverished sisters in the unglamorous side of the Belle Époque. We see the foul Parisian streets where hunger, crime, ambition, degradation, and disappointment combine into a desperate amalgam.  The story alternates between narrations of the middle and older Van Goethem sisters. Marie is an aspiring ballet student at the Opéra. Antoinette was an actress who finds escape in love. But in this case love can be as harsh and chafing as the hands of a washerwoman—one of the jobs she has taken on to support her sisters and her useless, absinthe-soaked mother.

Still the money is never enough and they are always hungry.  Marie takes work in a bakery before her dance lessons.  She also earns money as a model for Edgar Degas, and is later immortalized in his statuette, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.  The original wax and later bronze-cast sculptures present a street urchin dancer described by a critic of the time as being “imprinted with the promise of every vice.” Was that a prediction of a grim lifestyle to come? You’ll have to read and find out.

I found this book fascinating! Buchanan has a skill for luring the reader on and on, deeper into the lives of the Van Goethem sisters. I also have a whole new understanding and respect for Degas’s ballerinas.  When I look at the images of his paintings now, I not only see the grace and beauty, but I can almost feel the determination, exhaustion, hardships, and twists of fate that brought the girls on stage.

I hope to have the privilege of seeing some of Degas’s paintings and the statuette of Marie Van Goethem in person.  And, while this novel is a fictionalization of her life, when I see the statuette, I will feel like I know this once anonymous dancer.   

A great read. 

If you like this book, you may also enjoy I Am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto, Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland, and Frida by Barbara Mujica.

Happy Reading,


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1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed the book also. The glimpse into the lives of these young girls. Good read.