The year is 1878 and in Paris two young sisters, Marie and Antoinette van Goethem, find their lives turned upside down after the death of their father. Their mother, a laundress, is a heavy drinker and her wages do not stretch far enough to keep food on the table and the landlord from kicking them out. Young Marie, a promising student, must join her older sister in earning a wage.
Marie joins the Paris Opéra where she trains to be a part of their famous ballet. Antoinette gets work as an extra in a stage play by Émile Zola. Both of the girls find that while they love what they do, the small wages are not enough and they must take on extra work. Marie becomes a muse for Edgar Degas and is immortalized in his drawing Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Through this she meets a male patron of the ballet who also wants her to be his muse. All is not at it seems though and this wealthy man may be expecting more from her than just modelling. Antoinette takes a job at the washing house her mother works at but when her love life takes a dangerous turn, she turns to the less than glamorous world of brothels and theft. Both girls struggle to make a better life for their family but find that their same dream pulls them in different directions.
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan is a story of two young girls set in an incredible time of cultural and societal divide. Buchanan eloquently and truthfully writes Paris in the late 19th century, making it leap off the page and transporting the reader back to that time, even if they know nothing about it.
This is a beautiful book that was made even more beautiful for me when I found out that the characters and storyline were real or inspired by real events. Marie van Goethem was the real model for Degas' sculpture and Buchanan carefully and wonderfully recreates her life for the fictional world.
This is one of the best examples of historical fiction that I have read in a while. Buchanan takes us to a place that we're not all familiar with, a place and time where the distinction between "civilized" society and seedy underbelly is of growing importance and given much attention. This divide is shown from the perspective of the looked down upon and is well-written, evoking emotion and compassion from the reader.
Beneath it all is the story of two sisters, whose lives take different turns and who find themselves at odds with each other over decisions. But in the end, the girls learn that despite their choices, it is only with each other that they can truly fight the place society wants to put them in.