“I want to put my face in my hands, to howl, for me, for Antoinette, for all the women of Paris, for the burden of having what men desire, for the heaviness of knowing it is ours to give, that with our flesh we make our way in the world.” – Marie from The Painted Girls.
Life for the Van Goethem sisters has never been easy, but after their father’s sudden death in 1878 money becomes even harder to come by and the ability to keep food in their bellies and their meager roof over their heads anything but a guarantee. While thirteen year old Marie is intelligent and has been able to enjoy the schooling her father worked so hard to provide for her, she now has little choice but to go out and earn her keep as her older sister Antoinette has been doing for years. Marie and her younger sister Charlotte go along with Antoinette to the Paris Opera School in the hopes of finding a spot to train for a place in the Ballet while Antoinette finds work as a walk-on at the Opera whenever she can.
Being more of a mother to Marie and Charlotte then their own absinthe addicted mother ever was, Antoinette is used to putting her own needs aside and doing whatever it takes – lie, steal, cheat – to give her sisters as good a shot at a better life in the harsh, cruel world they were born into as she can. But when Antoinette falls in love with a young man of the streets named Emile she begins to dream of a different life with him and puts this fantasy before her responsibilities to her family. When Emile is arrested for murder Antoinette must ultimately decide what she is willing to sacrifice for the love of this dangerous man.
As Marie begins to show a real talent as a ballerina she attracts the attention of the artist Edgar Degas and begins modeling for him for extra money. While she sees herself as ugly and fears that her looks foreshadow a life of degradation, she develops a deep love for ballet and sees it at her only shot to make it out of the slums she was born into. When a rich gentleman begins showing an interest in her Marie must decide how far she is willing to go for the money and influence he can provide.
As these sisters begin to find their own paths within the artistic world of Paris their attachments to each other continue to shift and their worlds begin to drift farther and farther apart. They are forced to make decisions that could have dire consequences and to decide whether they are willing to sacrifice each other for the chance at a better future for themselves.
The Painted Girls is a phenomenal look at the truth hidden behind the supposed glitz and glamour of the Parisian Ballet. Just like Degas’ artwork, the story highlights the true struggle and ugliness of the poor of Paris during this time of great cultural change and serves to present the story of sisters born in the gutter but wanting nothing more than to rise above what they are told their life must be. It is entirely impossible not to feel for Marie and Antoinette and their deep need for something better. Also venturing into the realm of the belief that a person’s heredity and physical appearance determine what sort of person they will become – a poor, ugly person highlighting an ugly, vicious personality while a handsome or rich person more likely to be good natured – it was interesting to see the two sisters battle with their own personal demons to determine what sort of person they would become.
Beautifully written, The Painted Girls is a story of opposites: meek vs. strong, rich vs. poor, beautiful vs. ugly, good vs. bad. Anyone who is interested in learning more about the truth behind the glitzy veneer of the Parisian Ballet or anyone who just loves a complicated, endearing story of sisters would love this book. I now want to learn more about this time period and, for me, that is the true test of great historical fiction.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Riverhead Hardcover. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.