Wednesday 5 March 2014

The Painted Girls

Finished March 4
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

I listened to the audiobook version of this and found it slow-moving, but in the end I enjoyed the story. Set in Paris in 1878, the book revolves around the three van Goethem sisters, real girls in history. The story is told in three voices, that of the oldest sister, Antoinette, who had been in the second cadre of the ballet until she got too mouthy and now works as an extra at the Opera; the second sister Marie, who had been kept in school with the nun's until her father's death and then joins the Opera as a "petite rat"; and newspaper stories of the day that set the larger scenes of the story.
Antoinette leaves her job at the opera to take a part in the Emile Zola play l'Assommoir, where she plays the part of a laundress, a job her mother does in reality. Shortly before this, and during this time she becomes affiliated with a young man, who makes her feel special, but leads her into troubling directions. The young man, Emile Abadie, also exists in real history, but there is no evidence that the two real people had anything to do with each other.
Marie finds that she is actually talented at ballet, and she works hard to learn everything she needs to know to move into the corps. She also attracts the attention of the painter Degas, and is a model of his for several years both of paintings, and of the controversial sculpture Little Dancer, Aged 14. Marie is also an avid reader of the newspapers when she can get hold of them, and has become a convert to a belief widely espoused at the time that physiognomy predicts character. As a result, she believes her own looks mean that she is destined for a depraved and unhappy life, and having this reinforced by the reaction to the statuette modelled on herself does not help.
The youngest sister Charlotte, is the one that reality brought a long ballet career to, but we only see the beginnings of that here, as she is first too eager to show off, and then nervous of how others perceive her. She is the sister that we don't see inside the thoughts of, and thus is less well developed to us.
One gets a real sense of the Paris of the day, and of the worlds of both the lower class and the ballet at the Paris Opera. This book gave me historical information I wasn't aware of before and enlarged my view of the cultural world of the time in terms of art and ballet, of the social structure of Paris at this time in history, and of the penal system of the time. All in all, a very interesting novel, based on real people in history.

1 comment:

  1. I have had this since it came out and just haven't got around to reading it!