Marie and Antoinette van Goethem are 2 of 3 sisters who live with their recently-widowed mother in the late 1800s in Paris. Antoinette, the eldest of the sisters, works as an extra in the controversial play L’Assommoir and is adamant to not become a laundress like their absinthe-drunk mother. Marie and Charlotte both begin ballet classes at the Paris Opéra but while Charlotte has the angelic look and determination of a ballerina, it is Marie that captures the attention of many – including Edgar Degas. She begins modelling for the artist where she will then become the model for his famous statuette Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. The two elder girls soon get wrapped up in a life that seems to be spinning out of control, faced with many crossroads that test their morals and comforts.
I cannot sing enough praise about this book. It has everything that I love in it: Paris, ballet, a crime to solve and it’s written by a Canadian author. The Painted Girls is told in alternating points of view, switching back and forth and watching the story unfold from the eyes of Marie and Antoinette. The reader gets a fuller picture of what is going on even if the sisters themselves don’t know the whole story.
The narrative was interjected at times with newspaper articles discussing the murders that were taking place in the city, and the “analysis”, as it were, of people with certain physical attributes more likely to be tied to criminal behaviour. This was a really interesting subject to broach, and eventually takes on even more relevance, as there is constant mention throughout the book of Charlotte being cute and Marie wasn’t. The idea that Buchanan brings forward the correlation between how one looks, their status in society and how their future is to unfold closely linked was a thought provoking aspect to the overall book. The sisters don’t want to end up like their mother but, at their lowest points, wonder if they are doomed to the same fate.
The Painted Girls is an amazingly researched coming-of-age story; full of mystery, determination, hope and drama – all set among the late 1800s Parisian ballet. C’est magnifique.