Wednesday, February 06, 2013

THE PAINTED GIRLS by Cathy Marie Buchanan (2013) Harper Collins Canada, 349 pages

Set in late 19th Century Paris, Cathy Marie Buchanan’s THE PAINTED GIRLS transports you to another time and place with such evocatively rich sensory detail that you’ll find yourself immersed in the clatter and clamour of those narrow streets, your head turning at the imagined scents wafting from the local boulangerie.

Impeccably researched, Buchanan’s narrative peels apart the darker criminal elements that were inevitable pieces of the lives of the impoverished class at the same time that Zola’s words played on Paris’s stages and les petits rats trained and performed in the corps at the Paris Opera Ballet.

If you’ve ever seen a copy of Degas’s sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, you have already met the protagonist of Buchanan’s tale: Marie van Goethem, a petit rat herself who posed as the paid model over the course of several months, under Degas’s mindful gaze. The painted girls of the title are the van Goethem sisters, Antoinette, Marie and Charlotte, who, after the early death of their father and due to the alcoholism of their mother, are required to make their way in the world, earning money in order to live.

I remember seeing a copy  of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen here in Toronto at the AGO in 2003 and marveling not only at the appropriate posture for a dancer and the open fourth position in which her feet are placed, but also at Degas’s fingerprints that remained visible after his wax maquette was alchemized into a bronze. And, how fragile and young she seemed immortalized by one of the finest sculptors of his time.

19th Century Paris was a rough place, if you weren’t wealthy. Girls especially had to make difficult choices if they were going to survive. In THE PAINTED GIRLS, Cathy Marie Buchanan focuses her unflinching eye on the struggles of the van Goethem sisters and makes you believe, through her craft, that every moment she unravels is true. True to the core.

This is a novel that will work its way into your heart and leave an indelible mark.

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