This is one of those books that intrigued me when it first was published last year, was added to my to-read shelf on Goodreads, and then left to slowly move to the bottom of the list. So when we were offered it to promote the Riverhead trade paperback release, I was happy to accept a copy (or download to my Kindle) for review.
Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte Van Goethem are sisters living in the slums of Paris with their mother, a laundress who has spent most of her time with a bottle of absinthe since the death of their father. Antoinette, the eldest who ungrudgingly takes on the care of her younger sisters, gets the girls into the Paris Opéra ballet school, a place she herself was kicked out of for her attitude. Antoinette picks up a walk-on role to a play being performed at a nearby playhouse, and there she meets and falls for Émile Abadie, a boy she can’t resist even when he treats her poorly.
Marie, the shy, insecure middle sister, while less attractive and sure of herself than Charlotte, the baby, quickly moves up the ranks of the ballet school, drawing the attention of first the artist Edgar Degas, then a rich gentleman who has a lot of influence at the Opéra. At the awkward age of 14, she’s conscious of her body and unsure of where to draw boundaries while earning the money needed to help support her family. Marie despises Émile and tries to convince Antoinette that he’s no good, but to no avail.
Charlotte is only a minor character in the story — she has the makings of a star ballerina, but her superior attitude keeps her from advancing as quickly as Marie. I would have liked to hear Charlotte’s point of view in addition to Antoinette’s and Marie’s, other than the realization that the world doesn’t revolve around her, which helps advance Antoinette’s story, she doesn’t add much. Hearing her own feelings on her father’s death, her mother’s need for absinthe, Antoinette’s spending all of her time with Émile and neglecting her, and Marie’s advancement through the ballet school, all would have added to the story.
The Painted Girls is based on the true story of the van Goethem sisters, intertwined with that of the real-life convicted criminals profiled in Degas’s Criminal Physiognomies. Buchanan does a wonderful job of describing life in late 19th century Paris, the lengths that people went to to survive were often unfathomable.
A book about survival, dreams, and sister love, I recommend this novel by Cathy Marie Buchanan.
Nancy has always envied ballet girls. She writes about her boys, books and life in Colorado at Life With My Boys and Books.