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The Painted Girls

Cathy Marie Buchanan spins a clear-eyed and heartfelt account of the seamy side of La Belle Époque in Europe.

January 25, 2013

The Painted Girls By Cathy Marie Buchanan Penguin Group 368 pp.

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Reviewed by Veronique de Turenne for Barnes & Noble Review

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It was from the grim and blood-soaked wreckage of post-World War I Europe that historians looked back and named the preceding decades La Belle Époque. A thirty-year span of peace and economic stability, art, and science had flourished, even as the second half of the Industrial Revolution set the scene for the era's sudden and brutal end. Artists and intellectuals like Émile Zola, Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie, and Sarah Bernhardt helped to upend the status quo. With progress and optimism elevated to a form of faith, movements like Impressionism, Postimpressionism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau found fertile ground.

This is the world author Cathy Marie Buchanan puts on canvas in her second novel, The Painted Girls. A clear-eyed and heartfelt accounting of the seamy side of that gilded age, Buchanan gives voice to the historic figure of Marie van Goethem, one of the ballet girls who obsessed painter Edgar Degas.

It's 1878 when we meet Marie, whose father, a tailor, has just passed away. Her mother, a laundress whose love of absinthe trumps her concern for her three daughters, has fallen behind on the rent for their Montmartre tenement. Marie's older sister, Antoinette, is no help. Hot-tempered and difficult, she has lost her place as a paid dancer in the Paris Opera ballet. The burden of earning a living thus falls to Marie.
 
At thirteen, Marie is several years too old to become one of the "petit rats" of the Opera, the lowest rung of the strictly regimented training program. Still, driven by desperation, she auditions and is accepted into the company. The wages she brings in are meager, and the family remains impoverished. Though the accepted way for dancers to bolster their incomes is to accept the favors of certain male patrons, season ticket holders known as abonnes, Marie resists that path. When Monsieur Degas asks Marie to model for his paintings, she agrees. With her graceful back and her loose-hipped stance, she soon becomes his muse.

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