Thursday, October 25, 2012
Historical Fiction: "The Painted Girls" by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Historical fiction, in my experience, falls along a sliding scale of exactly how much of its content is fact, and how much has been created through artistic license on the part of the author. "The Painted Girls," Buchanan's second novel, is the result of much research into the life of a Parisian ballet girls painted by Edgar Degas.
Marie and Antoinette (the humor of the names in conjunction was not lost on me, although its purpose, if any, remained unclear) are sisters struggling to make ends meet with a deceased father, a drunken washerwoman for a mother, a ten-year-old sister, and debt ceaselessly threatening to drown them all. They see their salvation in the Paris Opera, where Antoinette has already lost her chance to become a ballerina, but Marie and little Charlotte may yet find their way onto the stage. This dramatic novel dips into the seedier side of the Opera, namely the realities of the girls who dance like gilded angels on the stage, and exactly what they have to do to get - and remain - there.
As I mentioned, Buchanan has obviously done a lot of research for this book. The Van Gothem girls really did exist, and Marie's character was the inspiration and model for "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen," a famous wax figurine by Degas. Additional characters, places, and incidents are gleaned from Parisian history, all of the same time period, and sources cited by the author in the book. It is all very involved and, frankly, quite impressive.
Also impressive is the manner in which Buchanan changes voice between the perspectives of Antoinette and Marie. The chapters alternate between these two characters, from their points of view, and it is instantly obvious to the reader when one character is changed for another. Through this language manipulation, not only words but perspectives, reactions, and opinions the sisters have of each other are cunningly used to convey the conflicts and struggles faced not only externally by the sisters, but internally as well. Love, loss, betrayal, self-doubt, passion and struggle: it's all here, from two different angles at once.
Although the book's conclusion was a little too tidy for me, one sister's turnaround a little too complete for me personally, its execution was wonderful and tied into the focal story line without obsessing about the time that had elapsed between the final chapters. And it's a happy ending, rewarding after following the characters through the immense number of challenges with which they struggle alone and together.
Look for "The Painted Girls" at your local bookstore starting January 10th, 2013.