The One Book One Brant event is taking place today and this year’s book choice was The Painted Girls by Canadian author Cathy Marie Buchanan. My second reading of this novel only reinforced how fortunate it is to born at a time when women have ample options to look after themselves and their families independently.
This piece of historical fiction shares the tale of a poor family who struggle to pay the rent for their room after their father dies. Their mother cannot cope with her life and lives in a haze of absinthe. When she is able, she works at a laundry and otherwise leaves her daughters to look after each other. The three girls must contribute, even the youngest earning francs dancing as a “petit rat” at the Opera House.
The story focuses on the lives of the two oldest sisters. Antoinette, the oldest daughter is no longer able to dance in the ballet and unfortunately falls in love with an unseemly boy, Emile. As she tries to care for her sisters, she spends less and less time at home while she is “adored” by Emile. She sees the best in him while her sister, Marie worries about their connection and her fears are realized when Emile is jailed for a brutal crime. Antoinette is forced to learn about the true nature of her lover the hard way, spending time imprisoned with nuns but learning a new skill for her release.
Marie, the middle daughter, dances for the ballet and attracts the attention of the artist Edgar Degas, who pays her to model for him each week. He sketches, paints and ultimately completes a wax statue of her in 1881 which received much criticism. Marie has always seen herself as ugly and this is reinforced by the reviews which are cruelly read to her by her “protector”, a man who has taken advantage of a young girl who needed money to support her ballet lessons and her family.
During my first read of this novel, I had not realized that the girls were based on real individuals that lived in France. This made me curious to view the actual statue named Little Dancer Age Fourteen which was central to the novel. I look forward to meeting Buchanan and gaining addition insight into this novel this afternoon.