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on October 20, 2014
What makes a great historical novel? In my view, it is taking a fragment of history, perhaps a newspaper article, or a snippet of an event, or in this case, a ballet dancer who otherwise would have been forgotten,and creating an unforgettable tale. Buchanan has done just that in creating the 19th C world of Paris. For a paltry few coins the fourteen year old Marie Goethem becomes the muse of Monsieur Degas and in so doing is immortalized. Buchanan has given life to Marie Goethem and her sisters, three impoverished ballet hopefuls who struggle to eat and survive in a world where everything is stacked against them. Buchanan weaves a story that, although imagined, has the possibility of being true. She clothes her tale in factual events and allows us to experience the underbelly of the Belle époque period. In doing so, she has given us an eagle's eye view of 19th C. Paris, with all its social inequalities. A period that shone like a jewel with its abundance of culture and enlightenment, yet beneath the surface teemed with poverty and tyranny. It was a world where ideas of prejudice and superiority infiltrated even the greatest of minds, and Buchanan manages to make it all real.

I would have given this book five stars, but I found some of the dialect annoying. The author intentionally made a choice to distinguish one sister from the other by their dialect, one having studied with nuns and the other being illiterate. However, I found it oft times distracting.

Otherwise, a not to be missed historical novel.
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on April 14, 2015
This is one of the better historical novels I've read. Despite the grim subject matter, The Painted Girls, kept me riveted through to the last page. It looks at poverty, addiction, prostitution, crime, and other dark realities in a frank and honest light, making them bearable to read about because of the immense heart of the narration.

I quickly came to care about the two main characters, Antoinette and Marie. These two sisters' love for each other and for their little sister, Charlotte, lifts the story up, offering warmth and beauty that transcends the squalid setting. The author's attention to detail and ability to create fully-realized living breathing characters is extraordinary.

I highly recommend this book, not if you're looking for a a quick, easy, pleasant, escape, but if you're in the mood for something with power and substance. The Painted Girls offers a poignant, compelling, and unflinching look at life for poor girls in Paris of the late 1800's. In so doing, it tells us something profound about the strength and resilience of the human spirit.
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on April 30, 2017
Especially since this is based upon a fairly factual story, I was somewhat pleased with the happy ending; however, no one really knows what happened to these poor girls. At least the Paris Opera Ballet was there for them to study. Anyone who longs for the "good old days" learns there weren't any in this area. Very hard to swallow: ignorance, poverty, excruciating work and filthy living conditions - the artist and the ballet still shines through the darkness. We have much to be thankful for in our present day lives, yet sadly all these conditions still thrive in many parts of the world.
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on August 8, 2016
This novel focuses on19th century ballet in Paris, specifically sisters Antoinette, Marie and Charlotte van Goethem. This is not a novel of royalty or the rich. The van Goethems lived in the slums of Paris. After their father died, they had little money. Their mother was a laundress and much of her money was spent on feeding her addiction to absinthe. There was little if any left to feed her daughters or pay the rent. Antoinette who was oldest took over much of the mothering role. She was an extra in the ballet school of the Paris Opera and took on other jobs to get money for the rent and a little food. She also mended clothes and ballet shoes for her sister and provided them with the love that their mother should have given them. She helped her younger sisters get admitted to the ballet school where they too earned a little money.

The voice of the chapters alternates between that of Antoinette and Marie. The story portrays Marie as intelligent and somewhat educated although she considered herself ugly, she was admitted to the ballet school advanced rapidly. Antoinette was uneducated and unable to read, but she was street wise and became involved with a boy who engaged in criminal activities and took advantage of her. Charlotte, the youngest sister, was not given her own voice, but her sisters saw her as the prettiest. Yet she was cocky and tried to steal the limelight from Marie.

When Edgar Degas saw Marie, he hired her to model nude for many of his paintings of ballet "rats." Later he introduced her to a man who paid her to "model" and was supposed to protect her. Apparently these men were quite common and some protectors really wanted sex with the little girls.

I loved the prose and the descriptions of the lives of the girls and the hardships they endured. Each person's voice was unique and I knew who was "talking" even if the chapter titles hadn't been named after the girl. The story tugged at my heart strings when I read about the changes that Antoinette and Marie went through. It is a book that I can't quit thinking about.

People who don't like reading about ballet and ballet training or painting and sculpture may well not like this book. People who don't like books that show the seamier sides of life may not like it either, as it is dark, deals with poverty, prostitution, alcoholism and addiction to absinthe. Also, I know some readers don't like sex in books. This book involves sex. It shows scenes in which masturbation or intercourse occurred. It also deals with prostitution. It is not a book many would give to a pre-adolescent child. In other words, you may not like it even if I loved it.
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on October 1, 2014
A fascinating time period, a great artist and his works, inside the life of the ballet, and an exploration of the lives of three lower class sisters trying to survive are the ingredients for a very good historical novel. I liked the book but I really wanted to love it. The author used the structure of alternating points of view and the intertwining of two separate real stories effectively. The characters just never really came to life for me. They seemed one dimensional, partly because the author used the same descriptive phrases about them repeatedly ( e.g., Degas' blue tinted glasses with no explanation why he wore them, Marie picking at her thumb, the mother drinking absinth) and partly because they never changed or grew in their roles. They each had one part to play in the story and remained static within that role. The author's descriptions of places and the era had more depth, creating an atmosphere which made me feel as if I was there. Overall, a very good book and a nice book club choice.
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on April 1, 2014
As a former dancer in my youth and then a ballet teacher in my later years, I was so very disturbed by this book. It is a masterpiece in that it told us so much more than we ever understood from the Degas pastel pictures we all viewed and loved. Who would ever have thought, but leave it to Cathy Marie Buchanan to come up with such a remarkable subject to attack and bring out in the open so that those pastel painted pictures could finally be exposed. It rather spoiled my fantasy of what I thought those pictures were all about, but explaining the characters she developed and their connections to each other and the outside world was brilliantly represented.
Our book group had one of our longest ever discussions because there were so many underlying messages, sub themes and character developments that one could not read without encountering something that needed a deeper understanding along the way.
An A+ from our book group for sure and I personally will be sure to share my enjoyment and appreciation with the author. Quite an accomplishment involving many hours of hard work and research to accurately tell her story. How lucky for us that she chose such an interesting topic to write about.
Madelyn Weingarden
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on September 6, 2016
I became totally immersed in the time and place of this novel and the lives of these young girls just trying to survive in Paris of the late 19th century. The author has treated her subjects sympathetically but has not glossed over the true hardships they endured. I will never look at hose paintings the same way again! A very skillful blending of historical fact and poetic licences. The main protagonist, Marie, will now forever hold a small portion of my heart.
I found the references to the works of Emile Zola particularly interesting, as I had read many of his works some years ago, and felt that the author had managed to place her story very much into the context of the avant gard thought of the time.
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on January 26, 2013
I have been to Paris. I have seen the Degas pictures and statues of the ballet rats, and yet I never gave a thought to what the lives of the girls working at the Ballet were like. This novel is set in 1878 Paris, detailing the harshness of life for young girls without a father. Their attempts to provide enough money to pay the rent and provide enough food for the family in a society that provides little recourse from what would be called civilized society centers around the family of the young girl who was the model for Degas statue Little Dancer, Age Fourteen. Although I had studied the history of attempts to predict human behaviors, and was well aware of the theories that one could tell the future by looking at the physiognomy of the individual, I was unaware that Degas exhibited his Little Dancer alongside the portraits of convicted killers, emphasizing the similarities of their features. It is not what I saw when I looked at her bronzed features! The characters are real people, but their lives of course, are fictionalized from the little that is known about them. The harshness of their circumstance provides vivid contrast to the beauty of Degas and contemporaries, and their story is compelling. I couldn't put it down - and am posting this review at 1:43 a.m. - well past the time I should be asleep - because I just couldn't go to bed until I knew the ending! Enjoy!
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on October 6, 2014
This is a historical novel taking place in Paris in 1878, a time known as the Belle Époque, and is based on the real lives of Antoinette and Marie van Goethem (and to a much smaller extent, their younger sister Charlotte). Marie modeled for Edgar Degas, and she is depicted in many of his drawings and paintings of young ballet students. Google "edgar degas ballet dancers" and you'll see many of them. Two of the most famous of Marie show her reading a newspaper and fanning herself. She is also the model for Degas' masterpiece, a two-thirds life-size sculpture titled "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen."

After their father's sudden death and their mother's succumbing to alcoholism, these three young girls not only look after each other in the absence of an adult, but also bring in all the money for the family to survive, however meagerly. While their focus is on the ballet and training to perform at the Paris Opéra, both Antoinette and Marie--in totally different ways--use their bodies to earn money. This is a heartbreaking and riveting story of love, despair, survival and, most of all, hope. The chapters quite effectively alternate between the first-person accounts of Antoinette and Marie, giving an intimate portrait of each girl's deepest thoughts and personal motivation, as well as their joy and grief. Excellent!
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on April 28, 2013
"The Painted Girls," by Cathy Marie Buchanan, is an exquisite tale of three sisters: feisty Antoinette, tenderhearted, Marie, and the youngest, selfish, Charlotte. However, the book centers on the two oldest sisters Antoinette and Marie.
It is 1878, almost the end of the Long Depression in 19th-century France. The sisters, suffering from inadequate nutrition and poor hygiene live in squalor with their widowed mother, a laundress, addicted to absinthe. Their mother has emotionally abandoned them. She squanders her meager earnings on the toxic, "green liqueur," leaving 16-year-old Antoinette to look after her sisters.
Marie and Charlotte are solely dependent on Antoinette, who becomes their caretaker. Antoinette makes a living as a walk-on in a play presented by Emile Zola. Antoinette is the lioness, the sisters' protector. Through lies and petty theft, Antoinette displays the wherewithal to keep her sisters housed and fed.
Prior to getting her role, Antoinette meets a dangerous, young man she falls in love with.
The second oldest, 12-year-old, Marie, senses a personality flaw in the man that holds Antoinette's undivided attention. Later, the man's vile actions will cause division between the sisters and threaten their strong love, friendship and fragile subsistence.
In the meantime, through the help of Antoinette, the Paris Opera selects Marie and Charlotte to train as ballerinas. Marie receives seven francs a month as a trainee.
Marie comes to the attention of the famous painter, Edgar Degas, who enthralled by her waif-like physique, pays her six francs to pose for him. Degas later sculpts Marie, immortalizing her as his "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen."
A wealthy older man, an abonne--season ticket holder at the Paris Opera, is also attracted to Marie. At that time, every destitute, young ballerina wants an abonne. These wealthy men appeared to have enormous control providing their teen mistresses preferential treatment with the Paris Opera House. Nevertheless, Marie is wary and fearful of the affluent man's attentions, and sensed there was more than his interest in the way she executed a plie or ronds de jambe a terre.
Resilient Marie showed her independence by finding work at a bakery prior to her morning classes at the Ballet. The extra money also provided her private ballerina training. Yet, she knows she will need the assist of the abonne to make her dreams become a reality at the Paris Opera.
I did not enjoy the novel until halfway through the book. After that, it was smooth sailing and a wonderful read. The ending about this family left me with a good feeling. No matter what your circumstances, love and unity is an important family tenet.
The book provides some history of late 19th century Paris, France, ballerinas and the fate of unprotected women. Considered second-class citizens, if a woman had no husband and no skills such as seamstress or milliner, she was destined to be a laundress, maid or lady of the night.
However, I found it interesting, citizens overlooked wealthy men's interest in young ballerinas at that time. Today, these men would be considered pedophiles. More interesting, but understood is the reasoning young ballerinas wanted an abonne. Sadly, they had a barely adequate standard of living. Even today, in some countries this is the norm where poor, young girls and boys, because of their circumstances, are exploited by wealthy tourists.
Great summer read.
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