The Painted Girls: A Novel

The Painted Girls: A Novel

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by Cathy Marie Buchanan

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A heartrending, gripping novel about two sisters in Belle Époque Paris and the young woman forever immortalized as muse for Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.

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


A heartrending, gripping novel about two sisters in Belle Époque Paris and the young woman forever immortalized as muse for Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.

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 Opéra, 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 Émile 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 Émile 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.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Audio
Buchanan’s intricate tale of three young sisters trying to make their way through the pitfalls around them is sympathetically narrated by Cassandra Campbell, Julia Whelan, and Danny Campbell. They bring proud, argumentative Antoinette; intelligent yet insecure Marie; and childish Charlotte to life and enlist the listener’s sympathy immediately. With so much against them in the underbelly of 1878 Paris—alcoholism, prostitution, even murder—the girls are almost sure to be lost. Can they survive? Even flourish? Marie is immortalized by the artist Edgar Degas, and the paintings and sculpture that are described in the story are on view on the author’s website ( While a URL is given in the oral introduction, it would be helpful if it were spelled out on the packaging.

Verdict This audiobook is an essential purchase for all libraries. [The Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA) hc was a New York Times best seller.—Ed.]—Juleigh Muirhead Clark, Colonial Williamsburg Fdn. Lib., VA
(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Product Details

Blackstone Audio, Inc.
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5.20(w) x 5.80(h) x 1.10(d)

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"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."—People

“The ethereal ballerina from Degas’s famed sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen comes to life in this richly imagined novel. Amid the glamour of tutus and art emerges a surprisingly gritty story of survival in the gutters of Belle Epoque Paris.”—Entertainment Weekly

“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. . . .  A compelling story of yearning for love in the face of ugliness and brutality. Wheeling out of control, the two older girls descend from their pretty pirouettes to misery, their mutual affection torn apart for a time. Nevertheless, Buchanan makes us feel they are good at heart. The Painted Girls is a captivating story of fate, tarnished ambition and the ultimate triumph of sister-love.”—Susan Vreeland, The Washington Post

"In this compelling tale, we meet a fictionalized Marie Van Goethem (one of the young dancers who posed for Degas) and her sister, whose journeys out of the Paris slums evoke the light and the dark of the Belle Epoque."—Good Housekeeping

"Two impoverished sisters in Belle Epoque Paris enter the world of the ballet (Degas) and theater (Zola) but also face temptations that can lure young women in the demimonde."—USA Today

“In “The Painted Girls,” a carefully researched, deeply imagined historical novel…the Belle Époque comes to vibrant, often aching life.”—Chicago Tribune

"[Buchanan] treats her girls with far greater care than do their contemporaries, seeing worth in them despite their misjudgments and calamities.”—Christian Science Monitor

“Buchanan does more than just write about what she knows; that same verisimilitude wends through the whole book: the grinding poverty in which the sisters live, the interaction between them, the daily life of a Parisian all come to life in her capable hands.”—Huffington Post

"A dark valentine to Belle Epoque Paris."—Vogue

"Buchanan 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 (starred)

"Engrossing depiction of Belle Epoque Paris."—Publishers Weekly

"The Painted Girls is historical fiction at its finest, awash in period details of the Paris of Degas and Zola while remaining, at its heart, the poignant story of two sisters struggling to stay together even as they find themselves pulled toward different, and often misunderstood, dreams. Cathy Marie Buchanan also explores the uneasy relationship between artist and muse with both compassion and soul-searing honesty.”—Melanie Benjamin, author of Alice I Have Been and The Aviator's Wife

"Part mystery, part love story, The Painted Girls breathes heart and soul into a fascinating era of the City of Lights.  One can't help but be drawn in by this compelling and lyrical tale of sister love and rivalry."—Heidi W. Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

“Beautiful and haunting. From the first page, I was swept up and enchanted.”—Amy Greene, author of Bloodroot

“Will hold you enthralled as it spools out the vivid story of young sisters in late 19th century Paris struggling to transcend their lives of poverty through the magic of dance. I guarantee, you will never look at Edgar Degas’s immortal sculpture of the Little Dancer in quite the same way again.”—Kate Alcott, author of The Dressmaker

“If you’ve ever looked at a famed piece of art and wondered what the artist was thinking or who the subjects really were, you will be swept away by The Painted Girls. Wonderfully imagined and masterfully rendered, this story of 19th century Paris and life behind the scenes of its legendary Opera House will change the way you see the world of ballet, art and the lives it portrays.”—Shilpi Somaya Gowda, New York Times and internationally bestselling author of Secret Daughter

"Sisters, dance, art, ambition, and intrigue in late 1800s Paris. The Painted Girls offers the best of historical fiction: compelling characters brought backstage at l’Opera and front and center in Degas’ studio. This one has 'book club favorite' written all over it."—Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters

Meet the Author

Cathy Marie Buchanan is the author of the national bestseller The Day the Falls Stood Still, a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection and an Indie Next pick. She lives in Toronto.

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The Painted Girls: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 63 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Painted Girls is a brilliantly written historical fiction set in Paris in the 1880's. A story about the lives of sisters trying to make their way through life under less than ideal circumstances. Do the girls have control over their destiny or is it fate that delegates their position in life? Intertwining the tale of the sisters' lives and true facts from historical documents, paintings, ballets, plays, sculpture, murder trials and more this notion is explored. A true page turner! This book filled with sister love and rivalry had me hooked from beginning to end. An utterly captivating read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm fascinated by ballet, so was intrigued with the idea of the book about the 'behind-the-scenes' story of Degas's sculpture of the little dancer. While rich in details, the book felt disjointed and the characters remained flat. I can't even call the characters 2-dimensional, because I didn't get any picture at all, as if there were no substance to Marie or to Antoinette. The relationship between Marie the little ballerina and Degas didn't even make it to a side-story in my mind, much to my disappointment. On the other hand, the book succeeded in depicting the incredible vulnerability of being female, poor, and young at that time. It made me shudder to imagine my own daughter growing up in Marie's or Antoinette's shoes. And the afterwards about the historical people and events that inspired this book was very interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Cathy Marie Buchanan has made Degas' paintings come alive. The juxtaposition of the ugly, gritty backstage life of the Paris Theater life in the late 1800s with the beauty and grandeur of the stage creates a very full, rich world. I would love to have an illustrated version with all of the works of art alluded to.
merlin1951 More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I have read in awhile. As said, a Must Read. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Did not enjoy this book at all, unable to finish. Although the plot seemed interesting, the book in fact was rather tedious and boring. Kept on waiting for the story to " pick up", I had to force myself to continue reading it. I could not appreciate the language the author used to depict the story, Ifound it fustrating. I am in a bookclub with 6 other women, all of them agreed, and only one person finished the novel.
musiclistener More than 1 year ago
As a dancer, I was expecting more along the line of the dancing. The story line placed around the dancers was hard to take. The real facts revealed in the authors notes were very interesting and probably the best part.
The_Book_Goddess More than 1 year ago
Best book I have read in a long time. The reason I was drawn to the book was because of the connection to Degas and his paintings. I thought it would be interesting to learn more about the girl who was made famous as the little ballerina. What I got was so much more than that...the book painted a vivid picture of what it was like to live in Paris in the late 1800's, the daily struggles to survive, the responsibilities that fell to mere children and provided an honest reflection on the Paris ballet. The book is also written extremely well, which is so important. This book easily could've been dry and flat but this book just came alive. I honestly had trouble putting it down and just couldn't turn the pages fast enough to find out how these girls' lives would turn out. This should definitely be on a must-read list for this year!
elle17 More than 1 year ago
I really completely enjoyed this book. Historical facts combined with believable fiction make for an excellent read. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I picked this novel up on sale for about $2, an absolute steal. The description seemed interesting, so I was absolutely thrilled when it arrived, along with several other books I'd purchased. This was the first one out of the group I read, and it did not disappoint. I finished it in a day, because I simply couldn't put it down. The book wraps you up in it's story, and you feel that you are truly living in 1800's Paris, among the squalor and upward struggles these girls endure. The characters are rendered marvelously, so that they seem all the more real. Unlike the strict and defined traits most authors give their characters, these are young women of blurred lines. It does away with the imaginary world of clear lines most writers create, and immerses you in a world of gray. This book is a must have for readers who want to be laughing and left in tears, all within a few well-written chapters. Thank you, Ms Buchanan, for a masterpiece.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had a hard time getting into this book as it was very slow moving. I think the characters were a bit shallow but they were children and it is a sad, depressing story.
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camilledimaio More than 1 year ago
To read is to learn, and to read is to be entertained. “The Painted Girls” by Cathy Marie Buchanan attempted to do both, and mostly hit the mark. The story details the lives of real life sisters Antoinette and Marie van Goethem, muses for the painter Edgar Degas at the Paris Opera House during the Belle Epoch. Their father is dead, their mother is an alcoholic, and the girls survive through a combination of dancing in the ballet, baking, sewing, modeling, and whoring. Two historic tales merge when the author Buchanan imaginatively fictionalizes a love affair between Antoinette and convicted murderer Emile Abadie. The book certainly took me in to the underbelly of a world of which I knew nothing, and I am always grateful for what I’ve learned. However, I felt that that the characters were always just a step away from the vibrancy that they could have had. For example, I was not drawn in to why Antoinette loved Emile. It was just supposed to be understood. I did not feel the girls’ exhaustion after rehearsals. I did not ache for their shame as they prostituted themselves. Everything was an almost feeling. I would have just liked to care a little more. Also missing was more information on their youngest sister, Charlotte, who actually went on to have the most successful career in the ballet. Having said that, it certainly kept me reading, and I enjoyed peeling back the curtain into the lives of the otherwise unknown dancers. One can only imagine how many other stories there are to tell.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Finchfeeder More than 1 year ago
An excellent view into the lives of Paris' ballet dancers. This book inspired me to visit Palais Garnier in Paris last summer. I had to see where Marie danced ~ breathed and posed.
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Chris-An More than 1 year ago
The title and cover illustration promise Degas.  But in reality, this is not about Degas.  It is about the Parisienne ballet girls of the 1880s.  So for the first 150 or so pages, I was disappointed.  Just as I was about to put it down, the story of the sisters really kicked in and I was glad I finished the book.  The author's note explains the connect to Degas and I found the whole thing quite interesting.  But my gripe would be with an editor who did not caution about promising something you would not deliver.  A different title?  A different cover?  Perhaps calling it what Degas' famous art piece is called, "The Little Dancer" would have been a better title and would have tipped off the reader as to the real theme of the book.  But a good book nevertheless.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I give this book a three star because I think it will be good to certain readers. I was surprised but I did not finish this book. For some reason good story or not, it was not an easy read to me. I love to enjoy myself when I read. The historical fiction and the sister's lives captured me somewhat in the beginning, so I am shocked I gave up but I did.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would definitely recommend! When you have viewed the paintings and statue your whole life it was so good to have a story to put with them. If you have been to Paris you will enjoy the references to the different landmarks. And if you haven't be sure to look up a map of Paris to get a feel for the city. I did love reading it very much.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago