Edgar Degas's wax-and-fabric statuette "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen" has held the curiosity of millions in its 28 bronze reproductions, but far fewer know the heart-rending history of the model, Marie van Goethem, and her sisters. In The Painted Girls, a historically based work of fiction rich with naturalistic details of late-19th-century Paris, Cathy Marie Buchanan paints the girls who spring from the page as vibrantly as a dancer's leap across a stage…The Painted Girls is a captivating story of fate, tarnished ambition and the ultimate triumph of sister-love.
Susan Vreeland - Washington Post
Deeply moving and inventive.... Buchanan's evocative portrait of 19th-century Paris brings to life its sights, sounds, and smells, along with the ballet hall where dancers hunger for a place in the corps.... But nothing is more real or gripping than the emotions of Marie and her older sister Antoinette.... Their tale is ultimately a tribute to the beauty of sisterly love.
Like children at the dinner table, muses are usually relegated to being seen and not heard. The Painted Girls, based on real 19th-century Parisian sisters, gives a vivid voice to two of them: Marie van Goethem, famously bronzed in Degas' Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, and her sister Antoinette, a player in the staging of Emile Zola's working-class masterpiece L'Assommoir. For them there's no glamour in dancing, modeling, and acting; it's merely a way to stay (barely) afloat in the slums of Montmartre. If it were Les Miz, they'd break into song. Instead, we get something much richer.
The struggle of three sisters in 19th-century Paris blossoms into the rich history of Marie van Goethem, model for Edgar Degas's controversial statue, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, in Buchanan's new novel (after The Day the Falls Stood Still). When their father dies, teen sisters Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte are left to fend for themselves, since their mother's meager wages often dissolve into absinthe. Knowing their best chance for advancement lies in the ballet, Antoinette, an extra at the Opéra, get her sisters auditions. Both are accepted as "petit rats," but to everyone's surprise, bookish Marie actually shows talent for dance, and pays for food and private lessons by modeling for the mysterious Edgar Degas. Meanwhile, Antoinette, who has been guardian to her sisters, begins a love affair with Émile Abadie, a young man of questionable character. As Marie's modeling for Degas leads to the interest of a patron of the ballet, Émile is arrested for the murder of a local tavern owner, driving a wedge between the devoted sisters. Though history loses track of Émile Abadie, implicated in three murders, and Marie Van Goethem after Degas's statuette is criticized as "ugly" with the "promise of every vice" on the girl's face, Buchanan captures their story in this engrossing depiction of belle epoque Paris.
Buchanan (The Day the Falls Stood Still, 2009) brings the unglamorous reality of the late-19th-century Parisian demimonde into stark relief while imagining the life of Marie Van Goethem, the actual model for the iconic Degas statue Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.... Buchanan does a masterful job of interweaving historical figures into her plot, but it is the moving yet unsentimental portrait of family love, of two sisters struggling to survive with dignity, that makes this a must-read.
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