Meet the van Goethem sisters. While a student of the Paris Opera Ballet dance school named Marie van Goethem modeled for Edgar Degas. Marie was the subject of the famous Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen Years statue. The Van Goethems’ life is fictionalized in Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls. The van Goethems are not the only real people portrayed in the novel. Meet Emile Abadie and Pierre Gilles, criminal young men on the lowest rung of society. Cathy Marie Buchanan has taken the few known facts about Marie van Goethem, Emile Abadie, and Pierre Gilles along with the social milieu of the time and constructed a novel of emotion around those facts. She didn’t make outlandish claims for her characters, thank goodness, and the Author’s Note at the end details where the few liberties were taken so that the reader can be informed.
The Painted Girls is a remarkably well-researched coming-of-age story. It is full of secrecies, determinations, hopes and dramas. Marie lived with her two sisters, Antoinette and Charlotte, and their mother in a desperate poverty. Historically, the novel presents an illuminating picture of life in 1880’s Paris, the role of the Paris Opera and the rise of the impressionist artist community. Structurally the narrative was interjected at times with newspaper articles discussing the murders that were taking place in the city, and the analysis of people with certain physical attributes, focusing on facial and cranial features which reveal a genetic tendency toward the criminal. The “Little Dancer,” with her slightly raised head, was thought to show some of those features. Marie is a bright girl. She has read and understood this scientific theory. She recognizes the features in Degas statuette and struggles with the concept that her fate is predestined, that she is doomed to become a criminal.
The narrative is divided between being from Marie and Antoinette’s point of view, and each has a distinct voice. Some of the secondary characters lack in depth and polish, but the main characters are so clearly drawn that the reader doesn’t really notice. Though Marie is thirteen at the start of the book, she never descends too deeply into the teenage angst that seems to steep books featuring a younger protagonist. Yet, we get a true sense of her age. I never thought she was anything other than a girl just coming into her own. The same can be said for Antoinette. There are parts in the middle of the book which were a slog, but the end redeems the novel. The Painted Girls is the story of family, of the bond between sisters. You can’t help but grow to care about the characters in this book, even some who may not deserve your concern.