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The Painted Girls: A Novel

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"Deeply moving and inventive . . . Buchanan's evocative portrait of 19th-century Paris brings to life its sights, sounds, and smells, along with the ballet hall where dancers hunger for a place in the corps. . . . But nothing is more real or gripping … see full wiki

1 review about The Painted Girls: A Novel

Tiny Dancer: Possible SPOILERS

  • Feb 5, 2013
  • by
While Cathy Marie Buchanan's novel, "The Painted Girls" is rich in its depiction of the late 19th century and its ability to illustrate the plight of the Petit Rats of the Paris Opera Ballet, it loses points for the overall pall of despair and hopelessness that hovers over the characters throughout the telling of their tales. The resulting read gives an interesting glimpse into the lives of these young girls who juggle ballet training, laundressing, modeling and prostitution to procure funds to keep themselves adrift in a world with set rules and harsh class distinctions. However, in light of the floundering economies of the present day, it is hardly uplifting even though the imagined ending by Buchanan suggests a slight happy ending.

More than likely, Buchanan merely wants to relate the back story of painter and sculptor Edgar Degas most important work as does Tracy Chavalier in "Girl With A Pearl Earring" and Susan Vreeland in "The Passion of Artemesia." Degas, known for his drawings and paintings of ballet dancers, would work backstage, capturing small moments of reality, as the dancers would undergo their excruciating exercises for hours on end. His then plan for depicting the brutality of the dancer's art and life nowadays is romanticized as seen through the rose glasses of beauty rather than viewed as the epitome of anguish and degradation associated with the ballet at that time. Degas incorporates images of the three Van Goethem sisters in some of his works and it is from the first person perspectives of Antoinette and Marie that the reader gets an insider's look at the Paris of the lower class at that time period. In addition to her background story of the origins of great art, Buchanan also thematically explores the impact on the intellectual theory of the time that suggests that those with brutish facial features--sister Marie is described as unattractive, even bestial with a protruding lower lip and a short apelike forehead--have no chance of any sort of enlightened or even productive future. Instead, they are relegated to the underbelly of society, most likely ending up as thieves, murderers or exiles in penal colonies. Sadly, while the events of this novel, do not in any way support this thought, the characters involved nevertheless fail to succeed simply due to the structure of society and it's the lack of options that would propel its lower class proponents into an arena of more opportunity. This bald fact adds to the novel's atmosphere of resignation.

The plot follows the sisters' world for a period of over ten years. Noted for her outspokenness, Antoinette is barred from the ballet's training class and finds work where she can as a laundress (another of Degas' painting subjects) and a player in a Zola theatric in order to contribute to the funds needed to feed and lodge herself, her absinthe-drinking widow mother and her two sisters, Marie and Charlotte. When Antoinette meets the confident Emile, she finds his lascivious attention frees her from the drudgery of each day and moves heaven and earth to continue her relationship with him even though it is not always in her best interest.

Marie, the eventual model for Degas' famous statue "La Petite Dansuese de Quartorze Ans," (a bronze cast of which went, ironically,for over $35 million dollars at Christie's in 2010 and is extolled for its beauty despite Degas attempt to depict the dancer's lowness) feels the music of the ballet take hold of her body as she learns the complicated steps and rigors that her teachers' stress will give her entry into the paid world of the Opera and perhaps the ways of the notorious Stage Door Johnnies that will pay a girl's way in exchange for favors. Marie understands her lot in life and relates to the reader her sadness in realizing her lack of options with a dejected realism.

Buchanan depicts the oddness attributed to Degas with an unsettling candor that will force you to view in a different way what was otherwise thought of as lovely paintings of pink and white dancers of the Parisian ballet scene of the late 19th century.

Bottom line? Cathy Marie Buchanan's "The Painted Girls" tells the story of the Van Goethem sisters who posed for many of Edgar Degas' famous paintings with a ballet theme. Realistically brutal in its depiction, "The Painted Girls" will strip away the romance associated with the time and its subject and suggest not only Degas' aberrant predilections with regard to his models and his philosophy but also the view of society regarding the lower classes and the various options available to them to live their lives. Although, Buchanan does a fine job of recreating this world, she also succeeds in pulling the reader's emotions into the plight of her characters in a way that is not entirely satisfying, only disturbing. Recommended only if you want to explore this side of Degas and his ballet dancers.
Diana Faillace Von Behren

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