What does the future hold for three young girls when their father dies expectantly? Well if the year is 1878 and you are living an impoverished neighborhood on the lower slope of Montmartre in Paris, the answer would be despair. These are the circumstances framing the setting of The Painted Girls, the newest novel by Cathy Marie Buchanan. In this story we meet the van Goethem sisters and follow their struggles as they put their childhood behind them and are forced to earn a wage to prevent being thrown penniless into the streets. The main role of caregiver is taken on by Antoinette, the eldest sister, filling in for their mother who is more interested in drinking absinthe than raising the children. Middle sister Marie abandons her education to join the Paris Opera with her youngest sister Charlotte. Training for the ballet pays seventeen francs a week, though it is still barely enough to put food on the table. Once she is discovered by Edgar Degas, Marie starts on a journey that will culminate in one of the artist’s most famous creations, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.
This is an absorbing story based on the lives of individuals during this period of history. The author’s attention to detail paints the dire circumstances the girls find themselves in as well as the dark and seedy elements that threaten to engulf them. By observing how the sisters grow throughout the story and the importance of their love for each other, Buchanan creates a remarkable novel, as captivating as it is enlightening.