I wasn’t really sure what to read for this category as, in terms of genre, it could be anything really. The last book I read for this category was Levels of Life by Julian Barnes so I knew I didn’t want it to be a memoir. I came across The Painted Girls on a Goodreads search and decided it was suitably different from everything else I had read for the Eclectic Reader Challenge.
It took me a while to read it, partly because it was the summer and I was not travelling to work every day, partly because it took me a while to get into it. The novel tells the story of the van Goethem girls in Belle Epoque Paris. Marie, the middle daughter, models for Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen in order to gain extra money for a family permanently poverty stricken, while also dancing and aiming for the stars. However, life is not ready to carry her in this direction.
There has been much praise for this novel and it does have some good features. I liked the interspersing of newspaper articles and scientific treaties with the girls’ narratives, along with reviews of the art shows where Little Dancer is shown. This helps to give a period feel and added to the oppressive atmosphere. Also, reference to the ‘science’ of physiognomy – whereby it was judged you could tell what a person was like from their features – that was popular at the time, adds to the narrative as Marie is fearful that her own features make her a potential criminal and helps to contribute to her downfall.
Less successful, I feel, were depictions of Antoinette’s relationship with Emile Abadie which end with her prostituting herself in order to raise money to follow him when he is shipped off to New Caledonia. Emile is a brute – and a bit of a characiture, if you ask me -and even after he has been implicated in two murders, Antoinette still protests his innocence and dreams of her perfect future. When she does eventually realise the truth, her change of heart was equally unconvincing.
Some reviews of The Painted Girls on Amazon complained that it was too depressing. Now, I am ready to admit that I am a miserablist and quite enjoy reading things that are considered depressing. Life would have been tough for the sisters and with the mention of Zola and L’Assommoir, the reader is given a clue to the downward trajectory of the girls’ lives. However, Buchanan moves away from the naturalist aspirations of Zola. Marie wonders why the heroine of L’Assommoir is fated by her lowly beginnings and it seems to me that Buchanan wished to give the sisters a different fate. However, for me, the happy ending seems a little too pat, a little unlikely.
Maybe it is just my lack of romance. I know I would have been happier had the ending been less so. In the end, I found that the narrative highs and lows were equally unconvincing. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate this book but I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. The descriptions of the ballet and of Marie modelling for Degas show exactly how tough the ballet world was and are perhaps my favourite part of this novel. Unfortunately other events were neither as touching or as well-written.