Three little dancers

Friday, January 18, 2013

"The Painted Girls," by Cathy Marie Buchanan. Riverhead, 368 pp. $26.95

Anyone who has seen "White Collar" on USA has heard the name of the artist Degas. In "The Painted Girls," Cathy Marie Buchanan creates a fictional world surrounding the history behind one of Degas' most famous pieces: a sculpture called "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen."

The "little dancer" is Marie van Goethem, who goes to model for Degas to earn a little extra money for her family. Her father died before the book opened and her mother spends most of the family's hard-earned money on absinthe. What little she and her sisters, Antoinette and Charlotte, can scrape together is carefully portioned to their mother so that they can have meat at least a few times each week.

Marie and Antoinette are dancers at the Paris Opera. Marie begins as a "petite rat," hoping to one day dance on stage as a member of the second quadrille. Antoinette's dreams of a place in the quadrille were dashed when she spoke out of turn, but she earns money by auditioning as an extra.

While the story behind the sculpture would have been enough, Buchanan also intertwines the history of Emile Abadie, a criminal convicted of murder three times, though never sentenced to death. In reality, the van Goethem sisters and Abadie may have never met; their lives overlap as Antoinette is forced to decide between young love and a dysfunctional family.

"The Painted Girls" is interesting, and follows in the wake of Paula MacLain's "The Paris Wife." While a little slow in the middle, the story is beautiful, and the chapters from Marie's perspective drive the story as we anticipate her trials and triumphs as a model for Degas and as a ballet girl at the Opera. Through her story, we also learn behind-the-scene details of the ballet life, from rich abonnes paying a girl's rise up the dance ladder for a private moment in return, to the grueling standards required of the best performers.

The story would have been more powerful, I imagine, with just the story behind the "Little Dancer" sculpture. But, regardless, it is beautifully written and an entertaining read.

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