Paris. 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 Opéra, where for a scant seventy francs a month, 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 Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.
Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modelling 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 love affair derails her completely.
Set at 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.”
The Painted Girls probably isn’t a book I would’ve picked up on my own as I totally judge books by their covers, but I was gifted the novel for my birthday and I always appreciate someone else’s recommendations! The book cover made The Painted Girls sound interesting enough, so I jumped into it to help pass the time while getting Norah down for her naps and bedtime.
Sadly, I found the book to be a little dull and lifeless; it wasn’t really a page turner for me. I understand that it’s based on real people, but the character development was slacking for me. Marie was very “ho-hum” and down on herself too much. And, while the book cover made it seem like Antoinette struggled with her own decisions, I never felt any kind of urgency or moral struggles from her. Antoinette was simply blinded by love and didn’t think twice about much.
What did I like about The Painted Girls? Well, it showed how young girls had to grow up perhaps a little too quickly. They are sent to the Opéra not because they want to dance, but because they need to earn money in order to pay the rent. It’s a reflection in general of how many people, even today, have to do things they don’t want to in order to pay the bills.
Overall, I was underwhelmed by The Painted Girls, so I’m giving it 2 stars out of 5.