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 handslaundress'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 ...
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).
Full Review (1000 words).
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.
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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