Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Book Review: The Painted Girls

I loved this book, and I hated it. But mostly I hated it because it was based on a true story that I couldn't get any more of. Other than that, it was a pretty fantastic book. Let's start from the beginning.

One of Edgar Degas' favorite sources of inspiration was the Ballet at the Paris Opera. He painted several scenes of little ballerinas at the practice barre or waiting in the wings or performing on stage. Arguably his most famous work was a sculpture titled "Little Dancer, Aged 14" (Or "Little Dancer of Fourteen Years" depending on the translation). The girl depicted in the sculpture was Marie van Goethem, and it was her story that Cathy Marie Buchanan wrote about in The Painted Girls.


Marie is one of three daughters born into the slums of Paris in the late 1800s. Her father dies just before the story starts, sending their laundress mother to the absinthe bottle (which, by the way, we tried at book club...YUCK!) and rendering her more or less useless to the three girls. Oldest sister, Antoinette, must then take responsibility for her two younger sisters, Marie and Charlotte, who both find themselves contributing to the household income by entering the ballet.

In my book reviews, I like to give more of my opinion and less information about the actual story, so I will leave it at that.

What I didn't like about the book:

Like I just mentioned, I wish there was more Degas.

When I finished the book, I wanted more information. What happened to these girls beyond this story? Unfortunately, and through no fault of the author, there just isn't that much information on their lives.

What I liked about the book:

The story isn't pretty. It takes you to some dark places with these girls as they attempt to keep food in their pantry and their family together. But the author also manages to write the characters in a way that you never lose hope for them, you never get to the point where you dislike them so much you stop rooting for them.

The story is, at its depths, about sisterhood, about how the love of these three sisters propelled them forward, kept them going and threatened to tear them apart. Even at their point of greatest disconnect, their happiness and their lives depended on each other.

As an admirer of Edgar Degas, I particularly enjoyed this story because it showed him from a different angle, one that you wouldn't necessarily expect to see. Even though he was not a major player in this story and I craved more information about him, more interaction with him, it still was a little bit like you were in the painting looking back at the artist.

It was one of those books that I couldn't put down and I couldn't wait to pick up every chance I got.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I would recommend it to a friend, and I have.

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