Like Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (think Prime of Miss Jean Brodie if it had been co-written by Patricia Highsmith), Night Film has a lot going on. While there’s quite a bit of plot to keep track of, the pace is pretty swift. It also helps that Pessl’s style is so compelling, you’re willing to follow the characters just about anywhere.
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.