From Goodreads: Paris. 1878. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventy francs a month, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work—and the love of a dangerous young man—as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.
Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Antoinette, meanwhile, descends lower and lower in society and must make the choice between a life of honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the demimonde—that is, unless her love affair derails her completely.
Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.”
I picked this book because I previously read The Art Forger, which centers on a painting by Edgar Degas. I decided to stick with the “Degas” theme to add to my book string. I would really give it 3.5 smileys, but I am still figuring out how to add half a smiley.
It took me a while to get into this book. I read most of this book during weeknights, and there were several times I fell asleep while reading. So the story wasn’t so thrilling as to keep me up at night.
While Degas and Zola appear in this book, the Paris Opéra features much more prominently. Unfortunately, I never felt close enough to Marie to appreciate all the details about her training and the workings of the ballet.
I found the relationship between the sisters much more interesting. They are so close, and Antoinette as the oldest is taking great care to look out for her younger sisters. But then life intervenes. Antoinette falls for a young man whom Marie doesn’t like. And Marie, who needs all the extra food she can get to have the strength for her daily dance lessons, stops sharing all the money she earns so that she can buy bread only for herself. A few quick decisions and wrong words, and the sisters grow apart and start to distrust each other. The loss each feels has a great impact on each one and the decisions she makes at that point. This aspect of the book was well done.
Early on, Marie starts to model for Degas, and she appreciates the food and money she receives while at his studio. While she doesn’t understand his way of painting—why stand in the fourth position if he doesn’t paint the entire foot?—she can feel the emotions portrayed in each piece of art. Marie thinks herself ugly, and so she understandably worries that a picture of her will be displayed for all to see.
“Would Monsieur Degas show me as a ballet girl upon the stage instead of as a petit rat, worn out and waiting her turn? His pictures told the story of a heart and a body, just like the gentleman at the Durand-Ruel gallery said, and I had felt Monsieur Degas’s eyes burrowing beneath my skin. What story would he tell with the statuette? What had he seen?”
When Degas tells Marie that his statuette of her has been a failure, she wonders whether it’s her fault, or rather the fault of her looks. Marie stops modeling, and it isn’t until much later that the thread is picked up again. The statuette eventually gets displayed, and while it is a success, many hurtful things are said about Marie in the discussion of the statuette. However, the book doesn’t focus on this part—or the effect this has on Marie—for very long.
The Author’s Note at the end of the book briefly summarizes the biography of Marie van Goethem and her sisters. It explains how a BBC documentary that questioned Degas’s “intention in exhibiting Little Dancer” alongside his portraits of convicted criminals” started the idea for the book. I found the documentary on YouTube and will watch it because this strikes me as a very worthwhile question. And after mulling over The Painted Girls for a few days, I can finally put my finger on what bothered me about this book when there seems nothing wrong with it: I wish that Marie’s relationship with Degas and the influence of him and his artwork on her life had been more prominent in this book. I also wasn’t sure what to think of Degas at the end. He was kind and considerate when Marie first started modeling for him, but I couldn’t figure out how he felt about Marie at the end. Did he feel sorry that because of his statuette newspapers described Marie as vulgar, with a face that is imprinted “with the detestable promise of every vice”? Is that what he saw when he created the statuette? There’s no way of knowing in this book, and I really wish there was.
I am planning to focus a little more on classic literature in the coming weeks, and so I decided to read Zola’s L’Assommoir next. It is talked about in this book, and it is actually quite funny how everyone involved in staging L’Assommoir keeps distinguishing between “real actors” and “authentic actors”—the everyday people like Antoinette who are hired to give the play authenticity.