The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan is a lovely, moving story of three sisters living in extreme poverty in Paris in the late 1800's. At seventeen, the eldest, Antoinette, works as a walk-on at the Opera, a dead-end job for ballet dancers who have failed to move up the ranks. Thirteen-year-old Marie is the middle child, intelligent, kind, and ambitious. Charlotte, the beautiful pampered pet of the family is eight. As the book opens, their father has just died and the wolf is at the door in the form of a landlord demanding back rent. Their mother, a laundress, cannot pay since the little money she earns she spends on absinthe.
Marie and Charlotte have little choice but to follow Antoinette to the ballet school. She presents them to the headmaster in hope that he will take them on. Marie is technically too old to start the rigorous training, but she has learned enough from Antoinette to impress the headmaster. Charlotte is talented and beautiful. There is no doubt that she’ll be accepted. But Antoinette had hoped to spare her sisters the life of the Opera. Girls as poor as they are cannot put in the hours of work needed to succeed without the support of a protector, a wealthy man to smooth the path. And the wealthy men expect things in return.
The book is told in the alternating viewpoints of Antoinette and Marie. The options available to young women in their social class are pretty grim. Working conditions are harsh and the pay poor. Sexual exploitation is rampant.
When Antoinette meets a rough young man named Emile Abadie, she trades her unsteady work as a low-level dancer for a temporary job as a low-level actress in order to spend more time with him. Antoinette has spent so much of her life mothering her sisters, sacrificing for them, defying her mother, being beaten down and rejected, that Abadie’s attention is a balm. He makes her feel adored. She feels that they understand one another. Although Antoinette believes that he loves her, Adadie is bad news and he draws her deeper into trouble.
Marie is old enough to see girls a few stages above her attracting protectors. But Marie attracts the attention of a different sort of man. The painter, Edgar Degas, who lurks around the ballet school watching the students, asks her to model for him. Despite her uneasiness, the money he offers is good.
For a brief time, the girls are succeeding, but it is a fragile success. Too many demands are placed on them by their employers, their mother, Abadie, Degas– and their own hopes and dreams.
The Painted Girls takes the reader deep into the darker side of Paris of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The world of the Opera is opened up for us and we are able to glimpse the desperate lives of the young dancers. The author makes the workaday world of the lower classes vividly real by showing us laundresses, actors, prostitutes, and even criminals at work and play. It’s a gripping story. But the best thing is the bond between the sisters. So much of the book is heart wrenching, yet it is an uplifting book after all.
The book is beautifully written. Inspired by the true-life circumstances of the model for Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, the author blends in themes of love and loyalty with ambition, art, Zola’s masterpiece about poverty and alcoholism, and theories prevalent at the time of criminal physiognomy–the belief that you could tell a criminal by the shape of his skull and facial features. It all makes for fascinating reading.
I’m adding this to my historical fiction challenge (hosted by Historical Tapestry) and to the Library Books Reading Challenge (hosted by Book Dragon’s Lair).