When a novel written by a Canadian author debuts on the New York Times bestseller list, readers are intrigued. The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan is an appealing mixture of family drama, period piece (set in late 19th century Paris), and an enticing portrait of the artistic and literary world of Degas and Zola. It is not surprising that it has consistently appeared on the Toronto Star and Globe & Mail bestseller lists since its release. Does the book live up to the all the buzz? I found the book to be a quick and captivating read. It offers an imaginative, moving glimpse into the life of three would-be ballerinas who are struggling to survive after the death of their father and the retreat of their selfish mother into an alcoholic haze.
The narrative perspective switches between that of two sisters, the elder Antoinette, and her sister Marie. Marie has the talent and drive to succeed in ballet school, seeking a better life and some measure of happiness through the joy of dancing. Commitment comes with a price and she models in the nude for Degas for extra money, and eventually attracts a benefactor, or abonné, to help pay the household bills. Encounters with her benefactor Monsieur Lefebvre shatter her innocence, and even lead her to seek escape in her mother’s absinthe alcohol, as she becomes “like a beekeeper hardened to getting stung.” Marie can justify modeling for Degas, and takes pleasure knowing that she has been singled out to be immortalized through a bronze or marble statuette. Readers will be curious to view the works of Degas that focused on the ballet world and the “petit rats.” There is a compelling article in the National Post outlining how Buchanan’s book was inspired by Degas’ sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Buchanan’s background as a ballet dancer gives the novel authenticity and the characters depth and complexity.
Her sister Antoinette’s tale is one of misguided romance, crushing responsibility, stubborn loyalty, and gradual moral decay in pursuit of unrealistic dreams. The reader is not surprised that a girl who lives “to get myself adored” by an undeserving beau named Émile gradually descends into a life of prostitution and theft. The result is a scintillating tale, revealing the common fate of a poor girl in a time period where girls are forced to use their flesh to make their way into the world. I loved the optimistic ending of the novel, the gripping way the sisters forgave one another (with”a lie said as a gift”), and the fact that the girls outwitted certain failure that seemed predetermined by their facial characteristics and environment, and became the best version of themselves.
My colleague just informed me that Cathy Marie Buchanan has tentatively agreed to appear at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival in September 2013. It will be a great opportunity for book club members to hear Cathy read, ask questions, and get an autograph. A Canadian author, Cathy was born and raised in Niagara Falls, but now lives in Toronto.
If you like The Painted Girls, you will be delighted to discover The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay. This book is another meticulously researched period piece, but it is set in late 19th century Manhattan. It focuses on another young heroine named Moth who is sold into service, and struggles to better her situation in a society where girls are auctioned off for their virginity. Guelph Public Library owns a book club set for this title.