Editors' reading guide: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Travel to Degas’ studio in late 19th-century Paris in this enthralling historical novel.
By Laurie Grassi
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Travel to Degas’ studio in late 19th-century Paris in this enthralling historical novel.

Laurie:  Hello! This month we travel to the surprisingly gritty world of Belle Époque Paris in Cathy Marie Buchanan's The Painted Girls.


Laurie:  We're so accustomed to thinking of ballet and ballerinas as this beautiful world, but there's this ugliness there and Buchanan certainly exposes that in this book.


Alex:  It gets pretty bleak at times. It is incredible how much the ballet has migrated from one class to another over time. It's such a privileged pastime now. You assume ballerinas on stage are fairly affluent to afford the classes, but that was not the case in 1900s Paris.

Lora:  I wonder how/why that shift occurred. I'm sure it had a lot to do with the abonnés or male patrons.

Alex:  Ballet was one of very few ways to make money — and, yes, linked to prostitution, but I think that was because of the attentions they received from male ballet goers.

Laurie:  As Buchanan points out, when the statue of the little ballerina was unveiled, Parisians were horrified. They thought, "She's a whore," not " What a pretty little ballerina," as we would now. But obviously that whole prostitution thing was going on behind the scenes, and the statue and the way she looked brought that out into the open for people then.



Alex:  That's another interesting point, Laurie — that our ideals of beauty have changed. Her broad forehead was the cause of much criticism because it was deemed ugly then, but I think we have a wider definition of beauty today.

Lora:  I found the whole discussion of typical "criminal" features fascinating.

Alex:  Apparently when Degas exhibited the statue, he placed it next to a picture of a criminal, and that was deemed suggestive. People were supposed to make an association or encouraged to at least.

Lora:  And it speaks volumes, I think, that he began to paint Emile around the same time.


Laurie:  Do you think Degas' interpretation of Marie in the statue was a way of exposing to Parisian society what they weren't admitting to themselves vis-à-vis the whole abonné thing? Why was he so fascinated by Marie in particular?

Alex:  It was all to do with her strength and youth, I think — there was lots of detail about her back, the shoulder blades sticking out like angel wings….

Laurie:  Do you think there’s more to it, though, particularly in the manner of exhibition and placement? Was he saying the ballet rats were criminals? Was he making a point about the abonnés? I don't know enough about the whole body of his work…. Buchanan makes such a point of Marie saying herself that she thinks she’s ugly.



Laurie:  He also painted not just the beauty of ballerinas, but the behind-the-scenes sweat and work and difficulty. The drudgery of life.

Alex:  Yes! In regards to that, Laurie, I think that he saw life for what it was — less as "good" and "bad" — and saw the beauty in truth.

Laurie:  So a commentary on society then, too, perhaps? The good with the bad?

Lora:  Absolutely.

Alex:  I believe so. And the main point is this: That in the ballet, men did not take their wives. They were watching, having inappropriate thoughts about these young girls. Then in the galleries, they would be admiring these pictures beside their wives.


Laurie:  It certainly was risqué entertainment — think of the costumes,  and the time period they were worn in. That’s a whole lot of leg!

Lora:  He showed the innocence of these girls, as well — the girl wrapped in a red shawl, crying, when on stage she would appear perfectly put together. Contrast that with that very dark underbelly to the whole ballet world. Lefebvre was a chilling example.


Alex:  The onstage and offstage was so very different. Lefebvre was so sinister! Buchanan told me when I interviewed her that he was a late addition to the book.


Lora:  Really? I would never have guessed that.

Laurie:  Conflict! More conflict!

Alex:  I know! She created him because she wanted more tension for Marie.

Lora:  The scenes with him behind the easel turned my stomach. She said so much about his character with those few paragraphs, and the character of the abonnés in general. Brilliant addition.

Alex:  The character of Marie's mother also hit me hard.


Laurie:  I can't imagine life without social safety nets.

Alex:  It was an intense journey, this book, and an education.


Lora:  I'm not usually a huge fan of historical fiction, but I loved reading about Paris then, even though it was so gritty. As a fact checker, I appreciate the research Buchanan did.


Laurie:  I liked the grittiness — made it real. It's like historical movies that show the costumes being dirty. Cause really, who could keep things clean then????

Alex:  And that the whole story sprung from something so specific — a sculpture.

Laurie:  Exactly. And Buchanan made the story real. Not pretty and fantasylike. Something that could have been.

Alex:  It was like looking through a keyhole.



Laurie:  It was interesting to read the perspectives of the three different girls, Antoinette, Marie and their friend Colette. Antoinette was looking for love and a good time; Marie was cautious and not into what she had to do, she just wanted to dance; and Colette was matter of fact about everything, with a good head on her shoulders.

Lora:  I was put off by Colette at first, probably because we were seeing her through Antoinette's eyes, but as she softened toward Colette, so did I.

Alex:  It makes you think, each to her own. Colette was a diamond in the rough. Another thing I appreciated was the dynamic of the sisters. How incredibly different and close they were, and how much they loved each other.

Laurie:  That was a key component of the story: who they can rely on and trust.


Lora:  That tenderness totally came through in their actions. I loved the scenes where Antoinette and Marie would talk on their mattress, and how Marie always missed Antoinette combing her hair.

Alex:  Antoinette's caring side was so obvious there.

Laurie:  So great characters, including that of Paris at the time and great plot by Buchanan, exposing the seedy underbelly of the world of ballet in late 19th-century France.



Laurie:  Well, ladies, next up is Charles Dubow's hot debut novel, Indiscretion. Get ready for a sizzling read!

Lora:  Good! I need a little heat this winter.

Alex:  It's going to be quite a change of pace, let me tell you. I have LOTS to say about that one!

Laurie:  I'm sure you do! Till then!


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