The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin
The death of Mr. van Goethem creates a crisis for his three daughters. The are not orphaned, they still have their mother, but with her absinthe drinking they basically just have her in name only. Antoinette had hoped to keep her sisters Marie and Charlotte out of work and allow them their childhood, but it is no longer possible, so instead she helps her sisters find positions as petit rats in the ballet of the Paris Opera, where they can earn seventeen francs a week to train. Antoinette was kicked out of the ballet some time before, but manages to find a part in the stage adaptation of Zola’s L’Assommoir. Things seem to be looking up for the van Goethems with everyone working and Marie even modeling for Edgar Degas – she is the inspiration for his statuette Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen – but their luck can’t last. Antoinette’s new beau, Emile Abadie, is driving a wedge between her and Marie, who is certain that he is bad news.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Painted Girls is that, while Degas himself is not a particularly major player in the book, all of the characters are based on the real people behind his art work. Marie van Goethem was really the inspiration for Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen and even Emile Abadie was the subject of some of Degas’s art, although to say what might constitute a spoiler. Buchanan’s van Goethem family is so vivid that I assumed she had created them from whole cloth, and I am impressed that her story is built largely on the verifiable facts of the van Goethems’s lives.
If you’re looking for a book to completely immerse you in late-19th century Paris, The Painted Girls is for you. Recommended.
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