The Painted Girls

Written by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Review by Troy Reed

Cathy Marie Buchanan (The Day the Falls Stood Still) delivers a stunning novel of 19th-century Paris that will live in readers’ memories long after they have closed the book. Buchanan imagines the life of Marie Van Goethem, the young model for Edgar Degas’ famed statue Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, and brings to light the seedier side of Paris.

The story is told by two of the three Van Goethem sisters in alternating chapters. The girls are left to raise themselves after their father passes away. Seventeen-year-old Antoinette takes on the role of mother to her two younger siblings while the girls’ widowed mother spends her evenings with an absinthe bottle. Antoinette, once a student at the Paris Opera ballet, works as an extra in a stage adaptation of Zola’s L’Assommoir. She arranges for her sisters, Marie and Charlotte, to enroll in the dance school to hopefully spare them the life of a laundress.

Marie is nervous, unsure of herself, and desperate to rise above the fate that might befall a girl in her social class. Shortly after Marie begins at the ballet school, she catches the eye of Edgar Degas and begins modeling for him. She also catches the eye of a patron of the opera and must make difficult decisions about the direction her life may take. Antoinette falls in love with an unsavory man, and quickly her life begins to revolve around him. She, too, must make hard choices that will affect her family.

This novel is a story of struggle, survival, family, and a test of how far one would go when faced with dire circumstances. I especially loved Buchanan’s descriptions of the ballet; I felt like I was granted behind-the-scenes access, her details were so vivid. This was a novel that was well worth staying up late into the night to finish, and I recommend it without reserve.