Set in Paris in the late 19th century, The Painted Girls tells the story of the Van Goethem sisters, Marie, Antoinette, and Charlotte. The family is in dire straits after their father dies. Their mother takes work as a laundress, but drinks up most of the profits. It’s up to Marie and Antoinette to take care of themselves, each other, and Charlotte. Marie becomes a dancer at the Paris Opera, while Antoinette takes a job at a theatre. Eventually Marie winds up as a model for the artist Degas, and Antoinette falls in with a young man who is not as wonderful as he seems. Through hardships, challenges, and betrayals of many kinds, Marie and Antoinette remain devoted to one another, leading eventually to a relatively happy ending.
The Van Goethem sisters really existed, as Buchanan mentions in her afterword, and of course Degas’ art is well-known. Even the criminal case that drives the plot for most of the second half of the novel is real. The connections that Buchanan creates are all her own invention, but they certainly work. Her characterizations are also very well-done, as is her sense of time and place. There’s great texture in this novel, and the voices she’s created feel very real.
My favorite part of the novel is the relationship between Marie and Antoinette. It’s the story’s driving force, and I think it’s the strongest part of the book by far. The other historical additions are wonderful, such as the backstory of Degas and his studio, but this is the story of two sisters who are bolstered and challenged by one another. If anything, I wanted more of that! At the same time, an explicit theme of The Painted Girls is how it was impossible to exist as a young woman in Paris during the Belle Epoque and not be used and exploited in one fashion or another. Both Marie and Antoinette find themselves exploited, though they deal with it and view it in very different ways–is it for art? For love? Neither? Both? Buchanan actually goes to lengths to make this idea explicit when she really didn’t need to. The story itself makes her themes and ideas very clear.
In all, this is a very strong historical novel that has great period detail, sense of place, and a wonderfully crafted relationship between sisters.
If you enjoy stories about the inner lives, desires, and backstories of the women who modeled for famous paintings, you might try Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, about a girl named Griet who models for Vermeer. Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore would be an excellent choice if you want a bawdy and funny tale about the power of the muse and the power of the color blue, set in Paris during the age of the Impressionists. I would also suggest Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves, a story of art and obsession which goes back and forth in time with three intertwined narratives.
Those who liked the atmosphere and characters might also enjoy Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin, a novel based on actual events. Set in London in 1748, it’s the story of a young prostitute who is driven by a love of clothes–driven eventually to violent crime. Any of Melanie Benjamin’s books might also be good choices–she writes well-researched biographical fiction with great characterization. Her latest is The Aviator’s Wife, about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, but she’s also written about Lavinia Warren (aka Mrs. Tom Thumb in P.T. Barnum’s show) in The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, and Alice Liddell (aka Alice in Wonderland) in Alice I Have Been.