"The Painted Girls" by Cathy Marie Buchanan is about dreams, dreams that can raise you up out of the most dire circumstances, if only you are willing to work hard and do what you must to survive. Antoinette and Marie, by turns, are ballet girls in the Paris Opera, with Antoinette learning too late that she cannot hold her tongue or bend her stubbornness. Imagine a time in 1880′s France when Emile Zola publishes L’Assommoir, which becomes a play about a laundress and the dire consequences of poverty and alcoholism, and when Cesare Lombroso postulates that people who are born criminals can be identified by physical characteristics of the skull. Buchanan has taken the real-life figures of Edgar Degas, Emile Zola, and Degas’ model for the statute Little Dancer of Fourteen Years — Marie van Goethem — and intertwined their stories with criminals Emile Abadie and Pierre Gille. Tempted by different fates, Marie and Antoinette’s stories are told in alternating chapters, providing greater insight into certain situations and events as well as the complicated relationship between sisters, particularly those struggling to survive with a drunk mother, deceased father, and younger sister weighing heavily upon them.
Even as each sister raises the other up with praise and support when times are tough, there are moments of doubt — that the love is not enough and that the support is somehow hollow. Antoinette has fallen from her place with the ballet and is scrambling for walk-on parts in the opera before she meets Emile and gets a steady role in L’Assommoir, while Marie is just embarking upon her journey in the ballet with their sister Charlotte close behind. There is the push and pull of these sisterly relationships as they compete to be the best in ballet and to earn the most, while still supporting one another and doing the little things that keep them spirited. However, their world is about to fall apart when Antoinette falls in love and becomes tempted by that love to throw all that she knows away on the belief that her love is real and ever-lasting.
Buchanan also demonstrates through Marie the notion that believing something to be true can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Marie says at one point, “Monstrous in face, monstrous in spirit.” She does not see herself as the beauty others see, and her self-image is a faulty foundation for her to stand on when she enters the ballet as she compares herself not only to her sister, Charlotte, whom is considered a cherub, but also to the beauty and grace of the other ballet dancers. Meanwhile, Antoinette does not have as many concerns about her beauty, relying on her wiles to capture the attentions of Emile and hold his rapt attention. She sees him as her escape from poverty, despite his criminal-like behavior and greater commitment to his friends.
In many ways, "The Painted Girls" is about the bond between sisters and about the self-fulfilling traps that many of us fall into even when the support system is there to support us. It is about taking things for granted, about being selfish, and about not giving into temptation. Buchanan’s storytelling is captivating, and her characters, while rooted in history, are dynamic and flawed — like the criminals spotted by their physical characteristics, Antoinette and Marie are typecast by the law, theater members, ballet instructors and the wealthy sponsors who have designs on dancers. Buchanan’s portrait of sisters in France during this period is gritty and emotional. Readers will immediately feel the dark, dank alleys of Paris and the heel of class distinctions upon their necks, just as the van Goethem sisters do.
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