The Painted Girls: A Novel

( 57 )

Overview

A heartrending, gripping novel about two sisters in Belle Époque 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 Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ...

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The Painted Girls: A Novel

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Overview

A heartrending, gripping novel about two sisters in Belle Époque 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 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.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Susan Vreeland
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.
Publishers 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. Agent: Dorian Karchmar, WME Entertainment. (Jan.)
Washington Post
Cathy Marie Buchanan paints the girls who spring from the page as vibrantly as a dancer's leap across a stage…the novel contrasts the sheer pleasure of dancing with sharp depictions of brothels, prisons and the guillotine...one reads on, compelled by love for these girls whom Buchanan describes so compassionately…The Painted Girls is a captivating story of fate, tarnished ambition and the ultimate triumph of sister-love.
Boston Globe
...this novel of family, romance, degradation, and fulfillment delivers great atmosphere and fully-realized characters.
Entertainment Weekly
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 Émile 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. A-
People Magazine
The Painted Girls is named the People Pick of the Week, and praised as “deeply moving and inventive…evocative…gripping…a tribute to the beauty of sisterly love.
Kirkus Reviews
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. Marie is the middle Van Goethem sister, the plain one who loves reading. Seven-year-old Charlotte has the looks and charm, while street-wise 17-year-old Antoinette is burdened with raising her sisters because their widowed mother spends most of her meager income as a washerwoman on absinthe. Kicked out of the Paris Opera ballet school but earning a little as an extra, Antoinette arranges for Marie and Charlotte to enter the school--dance is a way to avoid working in the wash house. Soon, Marie attracts the attention of the painter Degas. When he asks her to model for him, she jumps at the chance, both for the money and the attention. Through Degas, she meets Monsieur Lefebvre, one of the wealthy men who "adopt" ballet students of promise. Soon, she is able to quit her part-time job at the neighborhood bakery where she has captured the heart of the owner's son. Meanwhile, Antoinette gets a tiny part in Zola's controversial play L'Assommoir and falls in love with another extra, Émile Abadie. As the story progresses, the sisters come dangerously close to self-destruction. 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.
The Barnes & Noble Review

It was from the grim and blood-soaked wreckage of post-World War I Europe that historians looked back and named the preceding decades La Belle Époque. A thirty-year span of peace and economic stability, art, and science had flourished, even as the second half of the Industrial Revolution set the scene for the era's sudden and brutal end. Artists and intellectuals like Émile Zola, Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie, and Sarah Bernhardt helped to upend the status quo. With progress and optimism elevated to a form of faith, movements like Impressionism, Postimpressionism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau found fertile ground.

This is the world author Cathy Marie Buchanan puts on canvas in her second novel, The Painted Girls. In a clear-eyed and heartfelt accounting of the seamy side of that gilded age, Buchanan gives voice to the historic figure of Marie van Goethem, one of the ballet girls who obsessed painter Edgar Degas.

It's 1878 when we meet Marie, whose father, a tailor, has just passed away. Her mother, a laundress whose love of absinthe trumps her concern for her three daughters, has fallen behind on the rent for their Montmartre tenement. Marie's older sister, Antoinette, is no help. Hot- tempered and difficult, she has lost her place as a paid dancer in the Paris Opera ballet. The burden of earning a living thus falls to Marie.

At thirteen, Marie is several years too old to become one of the "petit rats" of the Opera, the lowest rung of the strictly regimented training program. Still, driven by desperation, she auditions and is accepted into the company. The wages she brings in are meager, and the family remains impoverished. Though the accepted way for dancers to bolster their incomes is to accept the favors of certain male patrons, season ticket holders known as abonnes, Marie resists that path. When Monsieur Degas asks Marie to model for his paintings, she agrees. With her graceful back and her loose-hipped stance, she soon becomes his muse.

As Marie earns a living, Buchanan gives her readers an education. While posing for Degas, Marie sees "...a drawing of a ballet girl sitting slumped on a bench. There is no more to the picture than a few lines of charcoal, a few dashes of pastel, but the exhaustion of the girls is there, in the ribs heaving with each breath, the late night and bellowing father of the evening before, also the long hours at the barre, striving to balance a second longer or land a little softer, the aching thighs rolling open even at rest."

Later, once we've learned just how precarious the lives of the Opera's lower-ranked dancers are and how slim their chances of becoming stars, Marie sees the truth of her status in another of Degas's paintings. In this one, "...a dancer bends forward at the hips to straighten her stockings; and another, with a shock of red hair and a face turned to the floor, looks like she is stretching out her tows, but it is impossible to know because a good half of her foot is chopped off, and this time, the top of her head, too. Behind these dancers, fluffing the tarlatan of her daughter's skirt is the mother, with the puffy face of an old concierge, and her friend, rough with her raw nose and plume of feathers bristling from her hat. These girls, Monsieur Degas is saying, do not be tricked by the grace of their backs. These girls are of common stock."

Antoinette, meanwhile, has found work as a day player in Zola's drama L'Assommoir, about a washer woman whose low place dooms her to failure. There, Antoinette meets and falls for Émile Abadie, also a historic figure. With his narrow, sloping forehead and wide, simian jaw, Abadie's face matches the facial characteristics for a criminal, according to a popular scientific theory of the day. True to history, Antoinette's lover is charged with and convicted or murder. As she works to clear Abadie, Antoinette draws Marie deep into a sordid scandal.

Little is known about the real lives of the van Goethem sisters. Antoinette was, indeed, dismissed from the Opera, but her affair with Abadie is pure invention. Charlotte's eventual career with the Opera spanned decades. And though Degas made scores of studies of Marie and then immortalized her in Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, the only sculpture he ever exhibited, nothing more is known about the model. It's only through Buchanan's words that the sisters become real. Her vision of La Belle Époque, like that of the painter she portrays, brings the soul and sacrifice of the ballet girls to life.

Veronique de Turenne is a Los Angeles–based journalist, essayist, and playwright. Her literary criticism appears on NPR and in major American newspapers. One of the highlights of her career was interviewing Vin Scully in his broadcast booth at Dodger Stadium, then receiving a handwritten thank-you note from him a few days later.

Reviewer: Veronique de Turenne

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594486241
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 1/10/2013
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 747,167
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

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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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 57 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(22)

4 Star

(20)

3 Star

(10)

2 Star

(4)

1 Star

(1)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 57 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2013

    A MUST READ!

    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!

    35 out of 38 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 27, 2013

    One of the best books I have read in awhile. As said, a Must Rea

    One of the best books I have read in awhile. As said, a Must Read. 

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 3, 2013

    Best book I have read in a long time. The reason I was drawn to

    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!

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2013

    Loved this book!

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2013

    I loved this book!

    Sometimes a bit creepy butvery compelling.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2013

    Page turner

    Great book, read it in 2 days.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2013

    Uninteresting

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2013

    Disappointing: flat & disjointed

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 26, 2013

    An Ok read

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2013

    The Painted Girls

    Great Read

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 17, 2013

    I really completely enjoyed this book. Historical facts combined

    I really completely enjoyed this book. Historical facts combined with believable fiction make for an excellent read. 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2013

    Horrible!

    Unreadable. Can't even follow what the author's trying to say. I would give negative stars if I could.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 29, 2014

    A special book!

    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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  • Posted February 19, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    The title and cover illustration promise Degas.  But in reality,

    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.  

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2013

    I give this book a three star because I think it will be good to

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2013

    It was a delightful read!

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2013

    Very good

    I really enjoyed this story.

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  • Posted June 7, 2013

    IMAGINATIVE AND ENTERTAINING.

    “No social being is less protected than the young Parisian girl—by laws, regulations, and social customs.—Le Figaro, 1880”—page 9

    Cathy Marie Buchanan’s historical novel, THE PAINTED GIRLS, offers a very imaginative and entertaining speculation on the lives and times of the van Goethem sisters—Antoinette, Marie and Charlotte—in 1878-1881 Paris. It was Marie van Goethem who was the real-life model for Edgar Degas’s famous sculpture. ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.’

    After a sometimes slow-moving first two-thirds of this novel, the pace picks up and it becomes quite a page-turner.

    Recommendation: Especially for anyone who enjoys Degas’s pictures and sculptures.

    NOOKbook editions from Barnes and Nobel, 338 pages

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2013

    Excellent.

    Characters were interesting and believable. Based on real events merged with fiction makes this story very interesting. A++++ job.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2013

    What a compelling story

    Pulled for these three girls the whole way.

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