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Off the Shelves: Painted Girls breathes life, literary magic into Degas' art

‘The Painted Girls’

By Cathy Marie Buchanan

Five out of five bookmarks.

Much of the magic behind great works of art comes from the mystery of what inspired the artist to create such a piece. When you walk through an art museum, you may wonder what is the story behind each painstakingly-painted image, what drove someone to spend so many hours laboring to produce something unique and enigmatic.

It is even more powerful when this magic touches another to create something else just as gorgeous, when art begets art. Such is the case with Cathy Marie Buchanan’s latest novel, "The Painted Girls," which tells the fictional tale behind one of Degas’ most renowned artworks, "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen."

The three Van Goethem sisters live on the brink of poverty in 1800s Paris. Antoinette, the oldest, cares for her two younger sisters, Marie and Charlotte, while their mother drowns the pains of their destitute life in absinthe. All three sisters want more than anything to be accepted into the Paris Opera as ballet dancers, and struggle to afford the necessary training with meager wages from walk-on roles in plays and menial labor.

While Antoinette faces bitter disappointment of not being elevated in rank as a dancer, and Charlotte’s boisterous pride keeps getting her reprimanded, Marie is quickly recognized by Edgar Degas, a local artist who routinely visits the opera to sketch young dancers. She begins modeling for him, and learns she is to be immortalized in a statue that will be on display at an artists’ exposition for all of Paris to see. Yet she soon begins to attract the attention of others, those that show Marie the darker, and more dangerous, side of a dancer’s life.

Meanwhile, Antoinette is unwittingly lured into love with a seedy young man, and her love blinds her from what he truly is and how it is causing a rupture between her and her family. As the sisters begin to drift further apart, both Marie and Antoinette must come to realize that their refuge, and hope, lie in one another.

Buchanan’s story, as mesmerizing as the Degas art piece from which she took inspiration, illustrates both the glamour of Paris that we romanticize and its toxicity that can shatter our dreamlike perception. A dancer’s grace and passion can be tainted by the base, beguiling natures of those who want to possess it for themselves. The hopes of rising above one’s lowly position in life can be crushed by the weight of simply trying to survive.

This is paralleled in a theater play in which Antoinette has a small ensemble part: Marie dislikes the play because she thinks it is "about being born downtrodden and staying that way. Hard work makes no difference, he (the playwright) is saying." She wholeheartedly disagrees with this depiction of life, even though it portrays the harsh reality that she knows so well.

Antoinette, on the other hand, begins to reflect the world of the play in her own life more and more — much like the main character of the play, she eventually has to go to toil in a washhouse to make ends meet, and the man she loves falls into ruin which contributes to her own devastation. How each sister responds to these circumstances — how easy it is to succumb to a desperate, unfortunate existence and how hard it is to rise above it — shows us the strengths and weaknesses of their characters, and also how they balance one another.

"The Painted Girls" is a trippingly-written tapestry of beauty and brutality, of fragility and tenacity, of love and despair. There is much to be absorbed from this book, from the touching story to the historical moments, to even a gripping murder mystery.

For those who haven’t thought much of Degas’ artwork in the past, this novel may make you see his masterpieces and the time period in which he lived in a new light.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on


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