Little ballerinas with big troubles

A review of The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Ballerinas.  Belle époque Paris.  Poverty.  Prostitution.  Edward Degas.  Sisterhood.  Painted girls.

Cathy Marie Buchanan lovingly creates a portrait of what life might have been like for Marie van Goethem, the subject of Edward Degas's sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.  Marie and her sisters struggle to subsist while dancing and performing at the Paris Opéra in late nineteenth century France.  Their father has recently died and their mother works as a laundress.  Much of the mother's salary is spent on absinthe and the girls work hard to make up the difference, but there is not enough food, the rent is always late, and there is never a spare moment to rest.  A pretty ribbon, a piece of candy, or morsel of baguette are all extravagant luxuries.

The book opens with this quote from La Figaro, "No social being is less protected than the young Parisian girl—by laws, regulations, and social customs."  And it is obvious that the three von Goethem sisters are in danger at all times.  At the start of the novel, Marie and her younger sister, Charlotte, try out for the Opéra Ballet and are accepted as petit rats, or the young girls preparing for the examination that will make them permanent members of the ballet.  Their older sister Antoinette has been turned away from the ballet, but finds work as a walk-on performer in Emile Zola's controversial play "L'Assommoir" about a washerwoman.  Life on stage appears very glamorous but behind the scenes is a seedy undercurrent involving older male patrons of the arts.

The sisters could not be more different in terms of temperament and how they deal with their circumstances.  Charlotte is bouncy and gets away with more because she is younger.  Antoinette is bold and somewhat negligent in the way that teenagers often are.   Marie is the careful, thoughtful one and in some ways, the one most responsible for the well-being of the family.  There is a fine line between fighting to survive and succumbing to the ills of society and Marie and Antoinette really teeter on the edge, crossing back and forth at times. 

I loved the details of the ballet and the opera and the theatre.  I've long admired Degas's paintings of the ballet girls and my understanding of the dancers and their surroundings is much greater, now.  I'll be honest, though, the exploitation and abject poverty destroyed me.  Those details make the reading experience a richer one and I felt like I had a true glimpse into what life was really like at that time and place, but it was difficult to read. 

There's much to discuss and I'm sure this will be a popular choice with book groups.       

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