The Painted Girls / Cathy Marie Buchanan
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2012.
A book that has been on my to-read list for years, I finally picked this up over the holidays this year. What an engaging read! Set in Paris of the 1870s, it follows three sisters from "the gutter" as they themselves put it, who aim to better themselves through dancing for the Paris Opera.
The middle sister, Marie, is the heart of the book. She is Marie van Goethem, the model for Degas' now infamous Little Dancer Aged 14. Buchanan has done her research on this family and includes some information about their future lives in an afterword, although there isn't much out there. So there are a lot of real people populating this novel, from the three girls, to Degas himself, to some criminal elements who attach themselves to the eldest sister Antoinette. I"m usually not a fan of real people as fictional characters but somehow I felt it worked in this book.
The perspective jumps between Marie and Antoinette, and so we see both Marie's progression in the ballet world and her work modelling with Degas, and Antoinette's life finding piecemeal work and being beguiled by Emile Abadie (who Marie immediately pins as a nogoodnik). The characters of their little sister Charlotte and their absinthe-addicted laundress mother are more nebulous, as they are not narrators, even if they do play important parts. As Marie grows and develops in the ballet, she also attracts an abonne -- a gentleman supporter who is just what you might imagine. Meanwhile Antoinette is getting further entangled with the emotionally abusive and secretive Emile.
The story is suspenseful, moving, and heavily infused with sensory detail. From laundering to dancing, the physical experience of life colours the reading. The setting is also a strong element and adds to the appeal of this novel. The emotional relationship between Marie and Antoinette is the throughline of the story, and it pays off.
Buchanan was herself a ballet dancer for a while and it shows in the description of the rigorous training required from a young age. Her research and presentation of the lives of the young corps of dancers at the Paris Opera in the 1870s does not shy away from the physical and sexual exploitation of these girls, either. This is a novel which feels drenched in reality, with a conclusion that is unexpected if you know nothing about this real life family (which I didn't) but which is tied together very believably using the known historical facts. It feels as though this is the real story.
You can see a gallery of images of Degas' work, of the Paris Opera, and a reader's guide at the author's website if you wish to learn more.