Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

The Painted Girls is the fictional account of the real-life van Goethem sisters, Marie and Antoinette, who lived in Paris in the late 19th century. With their father recently deceased and their laundress mother drowning her sorrows in absinthe, the girls need to contribute to the household's measly income. Marie trains to become a ballet dance with the Paris Opera, while Antoinette seeks out small parts as an extra. It's through the ballet that Marie meets Edgar Degas and ends up modelling for him. Eventually both are exposed to the grittier side of Paris and all of its temptations.

There's been tons of buzz about this book and it's easy to see why. It's so good. I loved it! The story of the relationship between Marie and Antoinette as well as the glimpse into 19th century Paris was spectacular. Even though it's fiction, I loved that it was about real people. I was especially pleased that Buchanan included newspaper clippings from Le Figaro to introduce or fill in parts of the story. It makes it all seem more real and believable.

The story is presented from two different viewpoints, Marie's and Antoinette's. The alternating chapters were a perfect vehicle to get the story across. Their voices came across so well, I could almost hear them talking. So well in fact, that a few times I caught myself reading with a French accent. In my head, of course, not out loud.

I really enjoyed learning a little about Degas. I didn't know very much about him, other than he did paintings of ballerinas. This book has inspired me to learn more about him and his work. I was also interested in reading more about the sisters themselves and looked them up as well. There was one other part of the book that had me intrigued. That's the idea that facial features and the criminal mind could be linked. Fascinating stuff.

Favourite quotes:
He touched me on the shoulder lightly, and in the touch I felt sadness that girls grow into women; that men crumple, hobbling over walking sticks; that flowers wither; that trees drop their leaves. The graceful childish back Monsieur Lefebvre, more than a year ago, felt driven to touch was gone and with it Monsieur Degas's interest in me modeling for him. He wanted only the heart and body of a little dancer, aged fourteen. (page 252)
The book contained a number of new-to-me words. Of course, there were lots of ballet terms, some of them familiar to me; others were more obscure. I looked a few of those up, but mostly concentrated on the others. I hope someone will correct me if these are incorrect, especially with the translations. Here's a sampling:
sou (page 5): small French coin
postiche (page 14): a small hairpiece
abonné (page 18): season ticket holder/subscriber
coryphée (page 26): leading ballet dancer
faubourgs (page 28): suburbs
sylphs (page 41): slim, graceful girl
lunette (page 217): crescent-shaped object
claque (page 226): paid audience
porringer (page 261): soup bowl

In the author's note, Buchanan explains more about the real-life characters, It's well worth the read. The acknowledgement section is also enlightening. It's where the author explains some of the research she undertook to tell this story.

I also read Buchanan's other book, The Day the Falls Stood Still (my review). It remains one of my favourite all-time books.

Highly recommended. I can't wait to see what Cathy has in store for us next.

For more information about this book or to browse inside, please visit the HarperCollins Canada website.

For more information about the author and her other book, please visit Cathy Buchanan's website.

I'd like to thank those nice people at HarperCollins Canada for this review copy and for inviting me to participate in this blog tour.

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan, HarperCollins, ©2013. ISBN 9781443412346(Uncorrected proof), 353p.


  1. Thank you, Marie. I love the close reading and the new words, plenty of which were new to me too. A lovely review.

    1. Thanks Cathy. I can't wait for your next book!

  2. Oooh, I wanted to read this book before I read your review. But now I really, really want to read it.

    1. Thanks Wendy! I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

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