Set in 19th century Paris, the Painted Girls tells the grim story of behind the beautiful corps du ballet. After their father’s death, three sisters and their mother find themselves at risk of living on the streets. The two older girls join the Paris Opera, which earns them a few francs per week in return for hours of grueling practice. Their mother takes in laundry, but drinks away her wages, so encourages the girls to find extra work. Antoinette, the eldest sister, falls in love with a shady young man who leads her into a life of degradation. Marie, the middle sister starts modelling for the artist Degas, who uses her as the subject of his famous sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”. There is no romance or starry Paris sky in this book – it’s all sweat, dirt and grinding poverty.
What the Armchair Critics Thought:
This book spoke to the heart of what is to be a sister. Those of us with sisters particularly understood the tug of war between abiding love and irritation that moved between Antoinette and Marie. We found the author’s use of true crime stories and actual historical people was well woven into the fiction she wrote to bring these characters to life. The role of ‘fate’, due to one’s head shape, one’s station in life, one’s role in the family was an interesting theme. We no longer believe head shape plays a role; are we mistaken about the other factors? Marie’s descent from promising dancer, to model for Degas, to modeling for his friend and then further down into alcoholism was sad to watch. We were glad that her eventual marriage to a bread maker turned her life around.