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on January 10, 2013
When I was a little girl I craved books about ballet - scouring the shelves of the library, looking through bookstores, garage sales, and flea markets trying to find anything that would have pictures of pointe shoes, references to famous ballerina's or composers of ballets. I still remember reading a book I found at a garage sale so many times that it literally fell apart in my hands one day (but for some reason I cannot recall the title of it, I just know it was so so good to my nine-year-old self).

I wasn't a big fan of Cathy Marie Buchanan's previous novel, so I approached The Painted Girls with some trepidation. I mean, her writing was sound - but the subject matter in her previous book left me a little, well, bored. That did not happen with The Painted Girls.

Told from two viewpoints, sisters Antoinette and Marie, this is the story of a family who has lost its father, the mother is a drunkard, the oldest sister a foolish girl and the younger one struggling to find her footing. There is a third sister, Charlotte, but she does not receive much of a voice in this story.

Also making an appearance in this book is the painter, Degas, and Buchanan references quite a few of his famous pieces of art to give the story setting and context.

I found The Painted Girls to be a heart-breaking, beautiful story and I walked away feeling like I'd read something that wasn't only interesting, but educational and enriching as well. Buchanan has redeemed herself in my eyes with this subject matter and I'm anxiously awaiting her next project.
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VINE VOICEon January 10, 2013
The tone of the book is set well by this quote from a French daily newspaper that introduces us to the first chapter--"No social being is less protected than the young Parisian girl--by laws, regulations, and social customs" (Le Figaro, 1880).

The book is beautifully rendered. Nineteenth century Parisian ballet is painted with lyrical prose. "Each step must be given a particular character, your hallmark as a dancer." The focus here is not on the rich and the glitter, but rather on the difficulties and challenges of the poor during this period of cultural and societal change. Much is here for lovers of dance, art and sculpture. The author's love for ballet spills over the pages even in descriptions that hint at dance. "...dipping only her toe into sleep." The corridors the book explores are the darker side of ballet, the artwork of Degas, and the survival skills of two sisters thrown into desperate situations.

The Author's Note tells us that The Painted Girls is based on the early lives of three van Goethem sisters: Antoinette, Marie and Charlotte. After their father's death, Marie and Charlotte are accepted into the dance school of the Paris Opera. The eldest sister, Antoinette, already employed there as an extra, Marie models for Degas as he sculpts Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. (Google an image of this sculpture for a better understanding of the plot and the statement Degas made in his sculpture.) Antoinette makes difficult choices between honest work and dangerous love. The book contains some salacious scenes used to depict the depravity of young Parisian girls used in beastly manners by men.

I thank LibraryThing for providing an ARC of The Painted Girls for my unbiased review.

Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
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VINE VOICEon January 12, 2013
Def giving this points for uniqueness. I learned so much about ballet, opera, Degas, his art. There's a bit of a mystery at the heart of this, but to me, I honestly felt this was a story of women and their never-ending struggle to be loved, respected, and successful. It's also a tale of children not being allowed to be children. It's about a very different time.

Three sisters, each one striving for something. Antoinette wants to be adored. Marie wants to take care of her family. Charlotte wants to be successful. And yet, they all become whores. One is a whore to love. One is a whore because in the end, despite all she does, she's left with nothing else. One is a whore in order to succeed, and in the end it's utterly sad.

Though very true to the era it's penned about, I had a hard time with Antoinette's story. She was just terribly dumb in my eyes. The truth was in front of her face so much...but it's amazing what a girl will do to have a man's approval. This book really makes you think of that.

Marie, the trial, the guilt she felt for the decision she made...very gripping.

Vivid. Realistic, sad, and wrenching. This is the kind of book you pick up when you wish to time travel. But it is full of heartache. In the middle, my mind began straying and at times the book lost my interest as it got repetitive, but it hooked me again towards the end.
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on January 13, 2013
The grace on the Opera stage contrasts sharply with the lives of the dancers backstage, many of whom, like Marie and Antoinette, are from the Paris gutters. The Painted Girls unflinchingly contains all the grit and blood of the Paris slums, though it is far more hopeful a tale than novels like Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The alternating first person point of view plunks the reader right into Marie's tattered shoes or Antoinette's sweat-soaked washhouse clothes. That the narrative is in present tense adds an immediacy to the tale that keeps pages turning. As a mother, my heart alternately ached and swelled for those girls, especially because I have my own "little dancers" - ages eleven and seven. Neither of them will be reading The Painted Girls any time soon, but when they are grown, or at least nearly grown, I will hand them a new copy. My own will probably be as tattered as Marie's shoes by then.
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on February 5, 2013
The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan, is not just the story of the famous Impressionist Edgar Degas' paintings and sculptures, or of the French Opera House and Ballet post revolution, but rather, a story of the depths of sociology, psychology, and the desire of human nature to judge and categorize. However, it's also the story of overcoming odds, circumstances, and even predestined labels, showing that humankind is redeemable and that people can overtake insurmountable boundaries.

The Painted Girls is an astonishing look inside the poignant world of art, dance, and the modern world of post-revolution France. Intellectually, it made contemplate and left a lasting impression, while emotionally, it broke my heart and then reclaimed it by the end.

I first wanted to read this book primarily not just for my fondness of history, but also my admiration for Impressionist artist Degas, as well as ballet. My youngest daughter, aged 5, dreams of being a ballerina and we have enjoyed several outings together to an art museum that features one of Degas' works showcasing dancers. Immediately into reading this novel, I knew I would be absorbing a book that had so much more to it than I realized. Buchanan really delves into the heart of her highly developed characters with this novel and gives us a glimpse of humanity at its ugliest and at its finest.

The story is primarily told through the words of two sisters, Antoinette and Marie van Goethem, by alternating chapters between them to tell the story in each point of view. Antoinette, not set to following rules and basing decisions on emotions, is kicked-out of the ballet early on, and though taking care of her two youngest sisters while their mother works and drowns her sorrows in alcohol, she finds romance with a street thug Emile who makes her feel "adored" and makes him her life's goal.

Blinded by love, Antoinette and Emile are both are cast in a stage play of the time, L'Assommoir, historically well-known now as a production based on an 1877 book that showcased the lower rung of society and working class debauchery. Much like Degas' art of the time, the book's author, Emile Zola, writes a realistic picture (as Degas paints it) of the realism of certain areas of France that were overcome with not enough money, too much drink, and too many seedy relations. Antoinette's story shows her misfortune as a laundress, her tie to a criminal, and even her dreams of being someone with a life only money can bring.

Meanwhile, Marie begins dancing at the Paris ballet with her younger sister. She works tirelessly in worn tights, shoes and costumes for hours a day with no emotional support, while struggling with the prospect of having a suitor to pay for her progress, which was common place during this time. The grueling work leaves her overly fatigued, but her family needs money. And she desires to progress to the next step up the ladder, which is to be on stage. She wants to be remembered; she wants to be appreciated for her talent. Unlike most from her area, she can read and is intelligent as well. She begins working at a bakery for extra income for private lessons and through hard work is promoted at the ballet.

Prior and during this time Marie also begins to model for Degas in his home studio, where he pays people to pose for him. Marie, in real life and in Buchanan's fictionalized tale, is his model for his famous Dancer Aged 14. Featuring his work at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881, Degas primarily gives an ode to how these lower class models are predisposed to crime and seedier ways, for instance that their facial structure in some way determines them as evil and not able to be morally sound. His goal of showcasing the realism of these lower subjects is ironically turned to international praise for this little ballerina in today's society. The statue in wax that Parisians once called ugly and "marked by the hateful promise of every vice" is now an international icon in bronze to the beauty and discipline that is ballet.

Painting above of ballet dancers by Edgar Degas is an example of his work showcasing the life of a dancer. This one I enjoy seeing at the museum by my home in Ohio. On her website, Buchanan features many of his works, as well as the sculpture, that inspired her book. Take a look at [...]
Buchanan, a ballerina and teacher of dance herself over her the course of her life, started at a young age admiring Degas' portraits of dancers. Later, she fully imagined this eloquent and touching novel, raw and intense, stemming from research on the Van Goethem sisters, the Paris ballet and the social climate, then mixed it with one of the notorious criminal cases of the time period.

The novel is full, rich, and emotional, both dealing with overcoming societal boundaries, sibling rivalry, and the dance that is relationships, yet also a touching glimpse at a sisterly love that overcomes all.

[...]
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Degas haunts the halls of the Opera in Paris. He is known for painting the "petite rats" of the ballet corps. Ballet was once a way for the starving and the poor to possibly make their way. One could work their way from the lowest corps to the halls where the abonee went to watch. The abonee were rich older men watching the young girls for a possible mistress. With luck a girl could earn her rent. Petite rats were six. The corps may be eleven or fourteen, but these alliances were not scorned. In fact special salons were built for these patrons, rooms where wives were not permitted.

In this book we follow Marie and Antoinette, two sisters making choices in this underground world. The theory of the criminal physiognomy was newly minted. The heavier skull thought to be that of a criminal. Marie does not have the fashionable face, hers is closer to that of the criminal. Yet she dances like an angel and catches the eye of Degas. Antoinette, ousted from the Opera due to her impertinence must find a way to live herself.

We know Marie goes on to be the famous Degas bronze, The Little Dancer. Today she graces the shelves of many a wealthy little girl cosseted and tutored to the ballet. This book brings us to the world of the Opera, a place where the dancers are convinced that no one would hang a picture of a dancer flat footed at rest. Dance is lyrical for a precious few, for the rest it is survival. The world is fascinating to visit. This book brings it to life.
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on January 10, 2013
A brilliantly written historical fiction set in Paris in the 1880's. A story about the lives of sisters trying to make their way through life under less than ideal circumstances. Do the girls have control over their destiny or is it fate that delegates their position in life? Intertwining the tale of the sisters' lives and true facts from historical documents, paintings, ballets, plays, sculpture, murder trials and more this notion is explored. A true page turner. This book filled with sister love and rivalry had me hooked from beginning to end. A wonderful read.
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on February 19, 2013
Buchanan's book is so grim and dreary that one wishes it came with a prescription for an SSRI. While her descriptions of life among the very poor working class in nineteenth century Paris are true-to-life and suitably grim, the slight story which she weaves about a trio of sisters with aspirations to dance at the Paris Opera Ballet is, in the end, less than satisfying. However, it is the sub-plot about the criminal "friends" who rub shoulders with the two older sisters that really strains credulity - they constitute more coincidental and obviously manipulated scenes than one finds in a Woody Allen movie. For those of us with only minimal knowledge of classical ballet, her narrative is sadly lacking in elucidating the various positions, steps, turns, etc. which the dancers spend hours each day studying and practicing. Sure, one can Google this stuff, but an artful and thoughtful writer would have taken the trouble to write this information into the text. What was most annoying was the sappy ending which Buchanan tacks on in the last chapter - if ever an ending were contrived and tortured to appeal to the "women's book club" clique, this is it!

The chapters which deal with the great Edgar Degas and his fascination with the "petits rats" (the young apprentice dancers) and the ensuing masterpieces which he created are worth reading - the rest of the narrative is depressing melodrama of the most banal sort.

This book has a sameness to its style, a stultifying read that produces a sort of numbness in the reader, that leaves one wondering if Buchanan simply narrated the pages which were subsequently parsed by a "focus group" before submitting it to a publisher (one hopes against hope that editors are still being employed in the publishing world, but I doubt it). It just feels "manufactured," not written with a sense of purpose or an inkling of how narrative arcs are supposed to work. Recommended if you are a dance enthusiast who doesn't mind wading through pages and pages of repetitive stories about the family's miserable existence, or simply can't read enough about the Impressionists.
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on February 20, 2013
This novel blending the true stories of a father-less Parisian family and a pitiless murderer is a heartless trudge from the opening pages to its inauthentic conclusion. Girls scrabbling for crusts of bread must choose to whom they will be in thrall--the abonees (Benefactors) of the ballet school of the Opera, the madame running a modest brothel or the tyrant supervising a laundry. One girl becomes a model for Degas, another makes her bed with a cur and the third plays such a small role in plot development, one wonders why she's in the story at all. About a third of the way through, I was really hoping this book would get better. Half-way through there was a spark that gave me hope. Unfortunately, that hope was futile.
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on March 12, 2013
This book opens with an 1880 quote from Le Figaro, 1880 "No social being is less protected than the young Parisian girl--by laws, regulations and social customs." The quote sets the tone for the entire novel. Two of the Van Goethem sisters tell of coming-of-age in the seedy, underbelly of late-1800s Paris. After their father dies, and their mother descends into the depths of addition, the younger Van Goethem sisters have little choice but to begin work as ballet dancers in training at the Paris Opera. The story is tragic and enlightening and there is enough mystery to keep the reader engaged.

Every other chapter was told by two of the eldest Van Goethem sisters--Marie and Antoinette. It's a bit unusual since there is a third sister (Charlotte) who never participates in the narration. Ironically, Charlotte is the only sister to stay with the Paris Opera, so her perspective might have been the most enlightening.

Unfortunately, the writing is a bit clunky. Example: "Colette is giddy, making a fuss over the silk waistcoat of Pierre Gille, going on to Paul Kirail about how plenty of women like their men in uniform, even bothering to admire my hair, which I have arranged in a puffed-up chignon with a black ribbon running around the edge and the silk flowers of Marie tucked in at the back." While the story has plenty of twists and turns, the writing itself slowed the narrative down.

In sum, this is a story that's historical and insightful, but if you're looking for great writing or the kind of tour de force as say, Les Miserables, keep moving.
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