It’s 1878 and among the poverty-stricken streets of Paris, the van Goethem sisters are plunged into dire straits when their father dies, a victim of overwork and terrible living conditions. Their mother, a laundress, lives each day in the absinthe bottle, leaving the sisters with little money for food and rent, so the two youngest, Marie and Charlotte are sent to train in ballet with the Paris Opera while the eldest, Antoinette, gets work as an extra in Monsieur Zola’s shocking play ‘L’Assomoir’.
Despite her initial reluctance, Marie finds herself consumed by a love of the ballet and is soon employed for a few extra francs to model for Monsieur Degas and will eventually become the inspiration for his statuette ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’. As Marie struggles with her growing expertise in dance and the unwanted attentions of an older admirer, Antoinette is fighting her own battle between her love for the mysterious and dangerous Emile Abadie and that she has for her sisters.
I have to confess that I found The Painted Girls difficult to read, but that is certainly not a comment on the skill of the author, Cathy Marie Buchanan, but rather a reaction to the terrible picture she paints of 19th Century Paris, then the realisation that the tale is based on true events, that the Van Goethem sisters did, in fact live in such grinding poverty.
The author weaves the sisters’ stories together by allowing them to speak, with each sister taking part of the narrative giving an immediacy to their situation -they are telling the reader their worries over where the next franc is coming from, allowing us to really absorb ourselves in their story. There is added drama in Antoinette’s story, as her lover Emile Abadie is implicated in a murder and goes through a lengthy trial which Buchanan has lifted from contemporary accounts of 19th Century Paris, but have no proven link to the van Goethems. This sort of dramatic license is entirely excusable here as it gives Antoinette another dimension when she could have been a very shadowy figure otherwise.
Buchanan’s descriptions of Paris in a Golden age are evocative and detailed, without overwhelming the reader. The scenes in the Opera ballet give lightness and beauty to an otherwise dark and gritty reality and the inclusions of ‘newspaper reports’ within the text firmly reminds the reader that these girls really lived among the vividly written tavern owners, dance mistresses and rich ballet patrons.
Published on 6th June by Little, Brown’s new digital imprint, Blackfriars and priced at only £3.99 The Painted Girls is definitely highly recommended for lovers of historical fiction.