Painted Girls (Buchanan)

The Painted Girls
Cathy Marie Buchanan, 2013
Penguin Group USA
368 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781594632297

A heartrending, gripping novel about two sisters in Belle Epoque Paris.

1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opera, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Emile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Emile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.

Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—May 23, 1963
Where—Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada
Education—B.S., and M.B.A., University of Western Ontario
Currently—lives in Toronto, Ontario

Cathy Marie Buchanan is the author of The Painted Girls and The Day the Falls Stood Still. Published January 2013, The Painted Girls has received enthusiastic reviews (Kirkus, The Globe and Mai, The Washington Post, People, Entertainment Weekly, and USA Today) and has garnered favourable notices in Vanity Fair, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, Chicago Tribune, Costco Connection and Chatelaine. Also an IndieNext pick, The Painted Girls debuted on the New York Times bestsellers list and is a #1 national bestseller in Canada.The Day the Falls Stood Still, her debut novel, was a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection, and an IndieNext pick.

Born and bred in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the setting of The Day the Falls Stood Still, Buchanan grew up "awash in the lore of William 'Red' Hill, Niagara’s most famous riverman," as she explains in the Author's Note that concludes her book. Like her character Tom Cole and his grandfather Fergus before him, the historical Red Hill could read the river with preternatural apprehension, anticipating shifts in the weather and sensing when people would be trapped by winds and water. In all, Hill saved 29 people and countless animals from drowning. The Day the Falls Stood Still was inspired by two of Hill's heroic rescues, which Buchanan thrillingly recreates.


The author’s fascination with the lore and legends of the falls is complemented by her interest in the economic and industrial forces at work in the region at the dawn of the hydroelectric era. Also prevalent is Buchanan's meticulous research into the apparel, furnishings, and customs of the social milieu Bess Heath is forced—by circumstance and for love—to leave behind.

A recipient of grants from both the Toronto and the Ontario Arts Councils, Cathy Marie Buchanan is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. She has published fiction in the Antigonish Review, Dalhousie Review, New Quarterly, Quarry, and Descant. She currently lives in Toronto with her husband and three sons.

The Day the Falls Stood Still—is Buchanan's first novel. Her second, The Painted Sisters, was issued in 2013. Another work of historical fiction, it tells the story of the girl behind the famous Edgar Degas sculpture "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen." (From the publisher and Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
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.
Entertainment Weekly

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.
Publishers Weekly

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.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. If I had a bit of nerve, I would tell him I want to look pretty instead of worn out. I want to be dancing instead of resting my aching bones. I want to be on the stage, like a real ballet girl, instead of in the practice room, even if it is not yet true. Marie thinks this while pondering the paintings in Degas’s workshop. What kind of art is he interested in making? Why are his innovations so important in the history of art? Do you see empathy or hostility toward the dancers in his artworks? In what ways is Degas sympathetic toward Marie? In what ways is he not? Does his interest in Marie ultimately give her feelings of hope and possibility, or feelings of inadequacy?

2. “Tonight, roasted chicken in your belly,” Maman says, loosening her arms, stepping back from me. “And always, an angel in your heart.” Marie’s mother often reminds her that the spirit of Marie the First, her older sister who died in infancy, is with her. How is Marie affected by her namesake? Why, at the end of the book, does she tell the old man at the tavern her name is Marie the First?

3. Is Marie deluding herself in believing her hatred of Emile is justified? Once she sees he cannot be guilty of the second murder, is it fair for her to destroy the alibi provided by the calendar? To what extent is she looking after her own best interests when she burns it?

4. Sometimes I wonder, though, if for the very best ballet girls, the trickery is not a little bit real, if a girl born into squalor cannot find true grace in ballet. Marie thinks this while looking at her fellow ballerinas on the Opera stage. Does Marie experience true grace while dancing? Without the ballet can Marie be fully content?

5. Antoinette was too bold in speaking her mind to end up with her legs spread open for a slumming gentleman. Marie ponders this misconception after a posing naked with her knees parted on Monsieur Lefebrve’s sofa. What leads her to such an idea? Are such misconceptions common among sister?

6. Emile consistently mistreats Antoinette. He forces himself upon her and then tells her it’s her fault; he allows Pierre Gille to slap her, and then abandons her for him. Is Antoinette’s blind love for Émile realistic? Of all his wrongdoings, why is it a lie that finally makes her see the light?

7. In what instances does Antoinette’s bold temperament hinder her? When does it serve her well?

8. “Both are beasts. The physiognomies tell us…Those two murderers are marked.” Degas says this to Marie after Emile is declared guilty of a murder she knows he did not commit. Why does Degas feel it is fair to judge the boys’ characters based on the way they look? What are some other moments in the book when people are judged as “beasts” or based on appearance?

9. “No social being is less protected than the young Parisian girl—by laws, regulations, and social customs.” —Le Figaro, 1880. Why did Buchanan choose this quotation as the book’s epigraph? How does it relate to the story? In what ways are the Van Goethem sisters unprotected?

10. I want to put my face in my hands, to bawl, for me, for Antoinette, for all the women of Paris, for the burden of having what men desire, for the heaviness of knowing it is ours to give, that with our flesh we make our way in the world. Marie thinks this while waiting to see Antoinette at Saint-Lazare. Is she correct in such thinking? To what extent does the sentiment hold true today?

11. What role does honesty play in this book? Do you support Antoinette’s decision to tell “one last lie” to Marie, the lie about Emile’s guilt? Does she go overboard with her refusal to tell even white lies by the end of the book? In what ways are Marie and Antoinette good sisters to each other? In what ways are they not? Would the power of sisterhood have prevailed had Antoinette not found out Emile was unfaithful to her?

12. Have you seen "Little Dancer"? What were your impressions? Have they changed after reading The Painted Girls? How?

13. Will you recommend The Painted Girls to a friend? A sister? Why?
(Questions from author's website.)

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