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The Painted Girls

by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Reminiscent of Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, Cathy Marie Buchanan’s second novel tells the fascinating story of the young 19th-century Parisian ballerina who posed for Edgar Degas’ famous sculpture Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. But while Chevalier’s novel (about the inspiration for the eponymous painting) is entirely imaginative, Buchanan’s meticulously researched book is based largely on historical record.

Reduced to squalor following their father’s death, Marie van Goethem, her two sisters, and their frequently drunken mother struggle to pay for lodgings and food. Marie, the only literate sibling, reluctantly leaves her studies and enters the lowest level of the dance school at the Paris Opera, where she earns a meagre 17 francs a week. Her modelling for Degas, done frequently in the nude, provides her with a small but vital income.

Marie is painfully aware of her lowly status: “We are the daughters of sewing maids and fruit peddlers, charwomen and laundresses, dressed up and painted to look like something we are not.” Her intelligence and strong spirit impel her to rise through the ranks of the ballet, believing it offers the only opportunity to find grace in an otherwise unremarkable existence.

The Painted Girls is told alternately in the voices of Marie and her older, more abrasive sister, Antoinette, whose own vulnerabilities lead her to prostitution and, ultimately, jail for theft. The sisters’ relationship forms the emotional core of the narrative, and their efforts to minimize their younger sister Charlotte’s suffering is touching.

In evocative and at times disturbing detail, Buchanan illustrates the moral compromises the sisters are forced to make, and the indignities they must endure, primarily at the hands of men, as poor young women in an unforgiving age.