Summary and book reviews of The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

The Painted Girls

By Cathy Marie Buchanan

The Painted Girls
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2013,
    368 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2014,
    416 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer Dawson Oakes

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Book Summary

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.

Monsieur LeBlanc leans against the doorframe, his arms folded over a belly grown round on pork crackling. A button is missing from his waistcoat, pulled too tight for the threads to bear. Maman wrings her hands—laundress's hands, marked by chapped skin, raw knuckles. "But, Monsieur LeBlanc," she says, "we just put my dead husband in the ground."

"It's been two weeks, Madame van Goethem. You said you needed two weeks." No sooner had Papa taken his last breath upon this earth than, same as now, Monsieur LeBlanc stood in the doorway of our lodging room demanding the three months' rent Papa had fallen behind since getting sick.

Maman drops to her knees, grasps the hem of Monsieur LeBlanc's greatcoat. "You cannot turn us out. My daughters, all three good girls, you would put them on the street?"

"Take pity," I say, joining Maman at his feet.

"Yes, pity," says Charlotte, my younger sister, and I wince. She plays her part too well for a child not yet ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. If I had a bit of nerve, I would tell him I want to look pretty instead of worn out. I want to be dancing instead of resting my aching bones. I want to be on the stage, like a real ballet girl, instead of in the practice room, even if it is not yet true.
    Marie thinks this while pondering the paintings in Degas's workshop. What kind of art is he interested in making? Why are his innovations so important in the history of art? Do you see empathy or hostility toward the dancers in his artworks?In what ways is Degas sympathetic toward Marie? In what ways is he not? Does his interest in Marie ultimately give her feelings of hope and possibility, or feelings of inadequacy?
  2. "Tonight, roasted chicken in your belly," Maman says, loosening ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Cathy Marie Buchanan offers an unsentimental look at family and love during an era more noted for its glamor and optimism, wealth and excess. While the story can be heartbreaking at moments, Buchanan's beautiful prose gives this emotional read, hope.   (Reviewed by Jennifer Dawson Oakes).

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Media Reviews
Good Housekeeping

In this compelling tale, we meet a fictionalized Marie Van Goethem (one of the young dancers who posed for Degas) and her sister, whose journeys out of the Paris slums evoke the light and the dark of the Belle Epoque.

USA Today

Two impoverished sisters in Belle Epoque Paris enter the world of the ballet (Degas) and theater (Zola) but also face temptations that can lure young women in the demimonde.

People

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 than the emotions of Marie and her older sister Antoinette. . . . Their tale is ultimately a tribute to the beauty of sisterly love.

The Washington Post

In The Painted Girls, a historically based work of fiction rich with naturalistic details of late-19th-century Paris, Cathy Marie Buchanan paints the girls who spring from the page as vibrantly as a dancer’s leap across a stage. . . . A compelling story of yearning for love in the face of ugliness and brutality. Wheeling out of control, the two older girls descend from their pretty pirouettes to misery, their mutual affection torn apart for a time. Nevertheless, Buchanan makes us feel they are good at heart. The Painted Girls is a captivating story of fate, tarnished ambition and the ultimate triumph of sister-love.

Publishers Weekly

Engrossing depiction of belle epoque Paris.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. [A] moving yet unsentimental portrait of family love, of two sisters struggling to survive with dignity, that makes this a must-read.

Author Blurb Melanie Benjamin, author of Alice I Have Been
The Painted Girls is historical fiction at its finest, awash in period details of the Paris of Degas and Zola while remaining, at its heart, the poignant story of two sisters struggling to stay together even as they find themselves pulled toward different, and often misunderstood, dreams.

Author Blurb Heidi W. Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
Part mystery, part love story, The Painted Girls breathes heart and soul into a fascinating era of the City of Lights. One can't help but be drawn in by this compelling and lyrical tale of sister love and rivalry.

Author Blurb Amy Greene, author of Bloodroot
Beautiful and haunting. From the first page, I was swept up and enchanted.

Author Blurb Kate Alcott, author of The Dressmaker
Will hold you enthralled as it spools out the vivid story of young sisters in late 19th century Paris struggling to transcend their lives of poverty through the magic of dance. I guarantee, you will never look at Edgar Degas's immortal sculpture of the Little Dancer in quite the same way again.

Author Blurb Shilpi Somaya Gowda, New York Times and internationally bestselling author of Secret Daughter
If you've ever looked at a famed piece of art and wondered what the artist was thinking or who the subjects really were, you will be swept away by The Painted Girls. Wonderfully imagined and masterfully rendered, this story of 19th century Paris and life behind the scenes of its legendary Opera House will change the way you see the world of ballet, art and the lives it portrays.

Author Blurb Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters
Sisters, dance, art, ambition, and intrigue in late 1800s Paris. The Painted Girls offers the best of historical fiction: compelling characters brought backstage at l'Opera and front and center in Degas' studio. This one has 'book club favorite' written all over it.

Reader Reviews
Louise C

eye opening historical novel
I was intrigued to find out more about the artist when I picked up this book. I got a lot more than I expected! Beautifully written, this book describes a time I knew existed, but had never read the depth of it before. The author brings to life the ...   Read More

RetiredReaderNE

Paris, Dancers and Art
I read an AVC and this is my favorite book of 2013. The dark side of Paris comes alive with vivid descriptions of slum living and how exploited the young dancers at the Paris Opera are. We get glimpses of Degas and his work. We feel the physical ...   Read More

Diane S.

The Painted Girls
Paris in 1873, but not the beautiful Paris filled with beautiful people, but the people trying to survive. The washerwomen, those who take in sewing, those who are hungry and those who will do anything to feed their families. Three sisters, a mother ...   Read More

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La Belle Epoque

The more than forty year period from the early 1870s to the beginning of World War I saw peace across much of Europe. Fueled by the continuing advancements of the Industrial Revolution, the era was marked by optimism and prosperity - for some. In France, this period is known as La Belle Époque, 'the beautiful age', a description applied to it in hindsight after the horrors of the First World War. During this time, the arts flourished. Theater, music, visual arts and literature evolved and gained worldwide attention.

The Moulin Rouge Many well-known artists came in to prominence during the Belle Époque. Artists Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and a very young Pablo Picasso were hard at work. Writers Guy...

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