This is the best work of historical fiction I’ve read this year, and that’s saying something, since historical fiction is my favourite genre to read. Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls tells the story of Marie and Antoinette van Goethem, two young girls in Paris in the late 1870s/early 1880s (there is a third sister, Charlotte, but Marie and Antoinette are the point of view characters). I didn’t realize till I finished the book that these were actually real people: Marie was one of the young ballet dancers who served as a model for artist Edgar Degas and because she was immortalized in art, we know a very little bit about her real life. The rest is fleshed out here in fiction, bringing a woman who exists only in a man’s artwork to life as her own person — much the same way Tracy Chevalier did in Girl with a Pearl Earring, though for my money The Painted Girls is a far more rich and compelling novel.
The three van Goethem sisters grow up in rented rooms in Paris, barely able to pay the rent. Their father is dead; their mother is a laundress and an alcoholic. All three girls aspire to the ballet and are enrolled in the Opera ballet school. Antoinette flunks out and goes on to be an extra in a play about laundresses, then an actual laundress, and also lover of a young man accused of murder. Marie and Charlotte show more promise and both progress to dancing on the Opera stage. But dancing doesn’t pay enough to cover the rent: Marie moonlights as Degas’ model and also by working in a bakery. She’s often too tired to perform well and is encouraged to rely on the solution most ballet girls turn to: a wealthy patron. These men, the abonnes, are able to lift some of the grinding burden of poverty, but the possibilities for sexual exploitation are, of course, endless.
Meanwhile, Antoinette has always been the protector of her younger sisters, taking on the maternal role that her own mother is unable to fill. But as her romance with Emile consumes more of her time and energy, the bond between the sisters, the one reliable element in the van Goethem sisters’ lives, is strained to the breaking point.
This is a compelling story about young girls trying to survive in a world where, as in many times and places in history, the odds are stacked against a woman being able to support herself and her loved ones. It’s also a powerful story about the relationship between sisters. Most important, it’s a masterful piece of historical fiction because it immerses the reader completely in an unfamiliar time and place. Every time I opened the book (well, opened the e-book, you know) I felt like I was in nineteenth-century Paris: the characters’ narrative voices combined with every detail of the setting to make that world so real and vivid it was like taking a vacation to the past. Which is exactly what reading a historical novel should be like.