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Sunday, January 27, 2013

"The Painted Girls" by Cathy Marie Buchanan


A heartrending, gripping novel about two sisters in Belle Époque Paris.
1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.
Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde. 
Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other.
Published by:  Riverhead Books
Pages:  349
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Read more:  Author's Website
Purchase this book:  Barnes & Noble

CATHY MARIE BUCHANAN is the author of The Painted Girls and The Day the Falls Stood Still. Published January 2013, The Painted Girls has received enthusiastic reviews (Kirkus, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Washington Post) and is a People Magazine Pick, a Good Housekeeping Book Pick, an Indie Next pick, a USA Today New and Notable selection, a Barnes & Noble Staff Pick, an Entertainment Weekly Must List pick, a Vogue Books People Are Talking About selection, a Chatelaine Book Club pick and a national bestseller in Canada. The Day the Falls Stood Still, her dedut novel, was a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection, and an IndieNext pick.

Her stories have appeared in many of Canada’s most respected literary journals, and she has received awards from both the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council. She holds a BSc (Honours Biochemistry) and an MBA from Western University. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto.

Connect with Cathy Marie on Facebook or Twitter.


I have to admit that this is one of those books I fell in love with the cover first.  I'm an art history major, and I was drawn to the Degas ballet dancers on the cover.  Once I had it in my hands, it was hard to resist the feel of it, too. It has that soft, velvety skin to it that they're putting on books these days.  It's a vivid and gorgeous book.  Then, the back cover and the summary caught me.  You've no doubt read it above...I hope.  This is all together a delicious book.

Cathy Marie Buchanan became a favorite of mine when I read her debut novel, "The Day the Falls Stood Still."  I'm not sure I know how to tell you what's different about her writing.  It just is.  Her voice is matter of fact and easy.  It was that element in her first book that made it so poignant and powerful to me, and it felt the same in this book.  While she tells us a human story, it's as if she's sitting down across the living room from us and telling it with all seriousness.  It makes for a beautiful manner; although, it's not light-hearted.

Without apologies the focus of her book is her characters, and there's nothing more powerful than a truly character driven novel.  There are actually three sisters in the book, although two sisters alternate telling their viewpoints in the story.  Marie, the younger sister, is wise and worldly beyond her years and is the model and focus of Edgar Degas and his art work The Little Dancer.  She personifies the struggles of the poor in the late 1800's in Paris, along with her older sister, Antoinette, who is no longer wanted by the Ballet and reduced to a washerwoman and lover of a criminal. 

What's interesting is that Buchanan has used the actual people to carve her story.  These people actually existed and she's created a story to encompass their circumstances.  Here is the old-world, almost journalistic bent to her writing style.  I was caught up in the horrific life-style of the sisters and their mother...the starvation and deprivation, the struggles to get ahead, the temptations of the easy way out, and the hopefulness of love even though found in the wrong places. 

The novel is a set piece continuing the light shone by Emile Zola on the human experience in his novels and play; as well as famous criminology, and the part anatomical features played in recognizing murderers in that age.  It's just fascinating as Ms Buchanan puts the story together, although it sometimes weighed more on the history than the novel side.

So, I suppose in summary I need to say that one mustn't be fooled by this book's cover!  While it is beautiful and soft, depicting graceful and limber dancers...it is solid and strange within.  It's a strong and interesting book.  The story is all the better for having been based on truth.

This is the darker side of Paris in the 1800's.  It's a mysterious side.  A glimpse behind the Opera curtain, into the art studio of a master, inside a brothel, and within the walls of a prison....  Come see!

4 stars                 Deborah/TheBookishDame


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