Sunday, March 17, 2013

Book Review: "Painted Girls" by Cathy Marie Buchanan

I used to read a lot of historical fiction, but I quit for a long time because I get too caught up in trying to sift out the fact from the fiction, and I get annoyed if the author fictionalizes in ways I don't like. So it was lucky that I read this book* not knowing that the van Goethem sisters really existed. I read the book thinking that they were fictional characters that represented the kinds of dancers Degas painted, which allowed me to fall completely under the spell of the story. When I found out at the end how Buchanan reworked history to serve her story, I was willing to forgive her because clearly her version does make for a much better story..

The underlying theme of the novel is that redemption is a choice that is offered to everyone. The biblical God says: "I set before you Life or Death. Choose Life."  And that same God gives his Creatures the free will and the spiritual power to actually choose to live. Unfortunately, the meanness of human culture (in this case the particularly nasty 19th Century Parisian version of it) encourages most people to choose the way of perdition.  Most of the characters in this story are deeply flawed individuals, who give themselves over to their vices and propagate the culture of abuse.  Mother van Goethem is a drunk who has no interest in her children. The men who act as "protectors" for the dancers are pedophiles. The dance teachers pimp for the pedophiles to keep the money coming in. Thieves and whores prey on each other in the streets.

Somehow, despite it all, three basically motherless girls manage to choose the path of redemption, although it is never an absolute certainty that they will succeed. Charlotte, the youngest, starts out as a selfish and self-absorbed spoiled brat, her sisters' struggles teach her the way of kindness. Antoinette, the oldest, falls in love with a man who is not worthy of her, and follows her love into of lies and degradation in the bordellos of Paris and, later, the prison/workhouse of St. Lazare. When she is released from jail she commits to rebuilding her life based on speaking nothing but the Truth and doing hard, honest work.

Marie, the middle child, is the model for Degas' sculpture Little Dancer Age Fourteen.  She has potential as a dancer, but dance lessons are expensive. She tries honest work as a baker, but the work cuts into her practice time and doesn't pay enough to both feed her family and pay for dance lessons. She ultimately acquiesces to an arrangement with a "protector" who pays for her lessons in exchange for her "modeling" for him. In addition to that, she actually does model for Degas, whose sculpture of her almost pushes her over the edge.

While Antoinette is in prison, Marie breaks a promise to her sister that she believes results in an innocent man being condemned to the guillotine. Her remorse causes her to begin sneaking drinks from her mother's absinthe bottles. She quits dancing and decides to become a prostitute. When Antoinette gets out of prison, she tells one last lie to rescue Marie. It's pretty clear Marie doesn't really believe the lie, but with Antoinette out of prison and on the way to an honorable life as seamstress and Charlotte having been promoted to the corps de ballet, it gives Marie the opportunity crawl out of the gutter and to prove that her ugliness is not a sign of wickedness.

Only two adult females in the story exhibit any integrity at all: a nun and a madame.  One kind and faithful male character is sort of the van Goethem sisters' guardian angel. The tension in the story is unrelenting. Just when you think the kids can't take one more hurdle, they manage to go over or around all obstacles. Then when you relax and start to believe they'll be okay, something horrible happens. It is fast paced but at the same time richly detailed and well researched.

I highly recommend this one!  Buy it here*.

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