Set in Belle Époque Paris, The Painted Girls was inspired by the lives of the Van Goethem sisters. Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte already lived in poverty before their father’s sudden death, but now they can’t rely on their alcoholic mother to make ends meet, and the girls must find a way to earn some wages. Hotheaded Antoinette has been kicked out of her position in the Paris Opera ballet, but Marie and Charlotte are able to audition and enter the Paris Opera as petit rats, the lowest level for ballet dancers. Meanwhile, Antoinette finds temporary work as an extra in Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir.
The girls struggle to live off the few francs they earn each week, but it’s never enough; they’re always hungry and underclothed. When Marie gets a chance to make some extra money as Edgar Degas’s model, she hesitantly agrees. Though she shows great promise as a dancer, she’s at a disadvantage compared to her peers. She’s undernourished and must get up early everyday to work her side job at the bakery, then head to ballet practice. Nor is she pretty; she’s a gangly girl with bad teeth, and she doesn’t have the money to buy pretty ribbons or flashy dancewear. Her only hope is to find a wealthy patron who will take an interest in her and provide the funds to support her dancing career. Might Degas be that person?
Meanwhile, the once-close relationship she’s always had with Antoinette is wearing thin. Antoinette has fallen in head over heels in love with Emile Abadie. Emile sets off all kinds of alarms in Marie, who feels that he’s nothing but trouble, but Antoinette will hear nothing of it. Using alternating narrators (Marie and Antoinette), Buchanan allows readers to see the story from two different sides.
One of the things I loved most about this book was how much history went into it. The Van Goethem sisters actually existed, and Marie would go on to become the inspiration for a famous Degas sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (though I wouldn’t recommend reading up on the background of that sculpture if you’re trying to avoid spoilers):
Buchanan also intertwines the Van Goethem sisters’ story with an infamous true story of that time involving Emile Abadie. Though the Van Goethem sisters and Abadie never crossed paths in real life, a lot of the details that went into the book are real. Gone are the romantic images of Belle Epoque; this is the darker side of that era. Buchanan’s mixing of two stories that stem from actual history makes for terrific storytelling.
The Painted Girls was released on January 10, 2013 by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin. You can see the artwork mentioned in the book on Cathy Marie Buchanan’s website.
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Publisher/Year: Blackstone Audio, 2013
Length: 12 hours, 15 minutes
Narrated by: Cassandra Campbell and Julia Whelan
Source: Library, though I also received a printed ARC from the publisher