Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Review of Cathy Marie Buchanan's The Painted Girls

By Kim

Synopsis ( from the book jacket):

1878 – Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opera, where for a scant seventeen francs a week she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work – and the love of a dangerous young man – as an extra in a stage adaptation of Emile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. Antoinette, meanwhile, descends lower and lower in society, and must make the choice between a life of honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde – that is, unless her perilous love derails her completely.

Set in a moment of profound artistic, cultural and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.”

About the author (from the book jacket):

Cathy Marie Buchanan is the author of The Day the Falls Stood Still, a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes and Noble Recommends selection and one of the Canada Reads Top 40 Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade. She holds a BSc (Honors, Biochemistry) and an MBA from Western University. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto.


Those who read my review of The Day the Falls Stood Still already know I am a fan of Cathy Marie Buchanan. When I learned The Painted Girls would be released in Canada (but not the US) before I would depart on my recent vacation, I happily went online and paid the few extra bucks to have the Canadian version shipped to me.

The novel did not disappoint. Edgar Degas is there in the wings, endlessly watching and sketching, his intentions as much a mystery in the novel as they likely were in life. Buchanan’s classical ballet training is evident, though readers need not have any technical knowledge of dance to grasp what happens in Marie’s classes or feel her palpable love of performing.

Photo by Deborah Downes
The grace on the Opera stage contrasts sharply with the lives of the dancers backstage, many of whom, like Marie and Antoinette, are from the Paris gutters. The Painted Girls unflinchingly contains all the grit and blood of the Paris slums, though it is far more hopeful a tale than novels like Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The alternating first person point of view plunks the reader right into Marie’s tattered shoes or Antoinette’s sweat-soaked washhouse clothes. That the narrative is in present tense adds an immediacy to the tale that keeps pages turning. As a mother, my heart alternately ached and swelled for those girls, especially because I have my own “little dancers” – ages eleven and seven. Neither of them will be reading The Painted Girls any time soon, but when they are grown, or at least nearly grown, I will hand them a new copy. My own will probably be as tattered as Marie’s shoes by then.

The Painted Girls will be available in the United States tomorrow - January 10th, 2013

Have you read this novel? Feel free to share your thoughts.


  1. I thought this novel was wonderfully done! Gritty, beautiful, heartbreaking. You really come to love those two sisters! Thanks, Kim!

  2. I wish I had a copy of Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen to put by my desk. That way I could keep Marie close and protected. I know, an odd thing to say, but the mother in me just wanted to hug her and tell her she was beautiful in all the ways that mattered.

  3. Congratulations, Cathy. Love your work. Excellent review, Kim. I ache for Antoinette and Marie, even though I haven't read the "Painted Girls" yet. Will for sure get a copy soon.

  4. You will love it, Deborah (Mom). Thank you for sending the photo of my own "little dancer" to include in this post.

  5. Thank you, Kim. Beautifully written, as always. Hope your own little dancers find the joy in dancing that Marie and Charlotte and I all did.

  6. Hi Cathy,

    You are very welcome! Dancing is Sasha's world right now, and it has given her poise, grace, and a confidence that astounds me. It may take a few more years to see if Ashlyn has the same dedication, but the dance teachers definitely have their eye on her. They are both blessed with great feet, which they apparently got from me. Their coordination, alas, is far better than I ever had!

  7. Your review suggests a compelling read. I've added "The Painted Ladies" to my "to read" list at GoodReads and remember "The Day The Falls Stood Still" with fondness.


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