This week I read The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. The book centered around sisters Antoinette and Marie growing up in a poor area of Paris. We open on their family including younger sister Charlotte and their mother begging their landlord for some more time to make rent. Their father had recently passed and they are having trouble making ends meet. So comes the decision to send Marie and Charlotte to the Opera where they will get paid to take dance lessons and hopefully make it on to the Opera stage. That is where Degas meets Marie and begins to paint her, earning her extra francs for rent.
All in all the book was really enjoyable. Degas is one of my favorite painters and I’ve always really loved his paintings of dancers so it was interesting reading about that world in more depth. Degas wasn’t as big a part of the book as I thought he might be, but I suppose the focus was supposed to be on his subjects rather than him.
There were a few themes that struck me while reading this. The first being how difficult it can be for people to rise above the social standing they are born into. It often seems, even in present day, when people are born into wealthier families everything is easier for them. They don’t have to worry about things like where their next meal is coming from, and they don’t suffer from the insecurity that they don’t deserve something better. They expect to have a comfortable life and they expect good things to come to them because that is what they were born into and that is what they know. However, the sisters in this book struggled to try and create a better life for themselves. Marie, in particular, was such a hard worker and she had her end goal to make the second quadrille of the opera. So she modeled for Degas, woke early to knead bread in the bakery and went to class. Such a schedule was obviously not sustainable so she then sought the help of an “abonne” which were basically rich men who “sponsored” the ballerinas and paid for things they needed so they would be able to focus solely on dancing. In obtaining one of these men to help her out she was put into extremely precarious situations at the age of 15 which eventually led to her drinking more and more to be able to deal with her reality. In the end it all got the best of her and she got kicked out of the Opera because she didn’t show up to a few rehearsals in a row. It struck me as extremely tragic and unfair. She proved to have more talent than most in her class, worked so hard, and because the amount she had to work could not possibly be kept up with the demands of her new job she had to turn to a strange older man for help who ended up taking advantage of her. I feel like at 15, or any age really, there is only so much one person can take and it’s no wonder her dreams were not able to be fully realized. However, if she was born into a wealthier family, she would have a father who would pay for everything and she wouldn’t have to worry about working several random jobs, or being in the debt of someone with ill intentions. She wouldn’t have a worry in the world and with the same talent she would have easily climbed the ranks and eventually become one of the “etoiles” or stars.
Another theme of the book was the justice system and the question of fairness within it. Antoinette gets involved with a boy, Emile, who is charged with murdering a tavern owner along with a friend of his named Pierre. Throughout the entire trial people were saying that Emily was sure to have committed the murder because he had the look of a murderer, whereas Pierre looked like “an angel” with his blonde hair and blue eyes and so could never have committed the murder. Throughout the book Emile was a questionable character, without a doubt, but Pierre proved to be a completely heartless human being when he kicked a dog to death for no reason at all. Just based on looks they immediately thought Pierre innocent, when he was definitely not the angel people made him out to be. It was interesting to see the parallel with present day. Often people are treated unfairly in the justice system based on the way they look.
I also really loved how at the end of the book they flash forwarded several years so we could see the sisters and how they turned out. Their mother left without a trace which was not surprising. However, it was a nice ending to see that the sisters ended up doing well for themselves. It’s nice, in books about children and teenagers, to see how things turn out for them when they are all grown up. I was also glad this was a happy(ish) ending with everything they had to endure.
Would you recommend to a friend?: Absolutely!
Okay. Since it’s October I’m going to dedicate this month to scary books. My next book, which I invite you to read along with, is Stephen King’s IT in honor of the movie that came out! Since it’s a HUGE book (like 1,000 pages) I’m actually going to take 2 weeks with it! As always I welcome your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section!