The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan (Riverhead; 368 pages; $26.95).
During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the Prussian army laid siege to the city of Paris, cutting off supply lines and transforming the “center of the universe” into a mean, alien environ. It was not long before the stomachs of Parisians grumbled with hunger. Soon, the people of Paris were starving. Desperate times called for desperate measures. With food running low, pride and social convention went out the window as people slaughtered and ate dogs, cats, horses, rats, and even two elephants, Castor and Pollux, the pride of the city’s zoo. The only thing that mattered was survival.
Cathy Marie Buchanan’s second novel, The Painted Girls (she previously wrote the national bestseller The Day the Falls Stood Still), opens in 1878, years after the siege of Paris. Yet her Paris has much in common with that other Paris. Buchanan’s Paris is not the stuff of love stories; her Paris is raw, unflinching, intimate, coarse, menacing, and achingly real. Girls are particularly vulnerable, as they must use their cunning, femininity, and sexuality to make their way in the world. As Le Figaro said in 1880, “No social being is less protected than the young Parisian girl—by laws, regulations, and social customs.” In Buchanan’s Paris, survival is not guaranteed; instead, the mere act of existence is a constant struggle.
In alternating chapters, The Painted Girls focuses on two sisters, Marie and Antoinette van Goethem. Marie, sweet, pure, and intelligent, trains to become a ballet dancer at the Paris Opera, where she earns seventeen francs a week. Her older sister, Antoinette, earthy and street-smart, who once dreamt of the ballet herself, meets and falls in love with a young man who makes her forget her obligations.
The van Goethems are very poor. The scant wages that the sisters receive help support the rest of their family: an absinthe-addicted mother and a beautiful younger sister. There are opportunities, bastions of hope, for the sisters, but they are not nearly enough. Antoinette has a role in a new kind of naturalist play, L’Assommoir, by Emile Zola, which shows the stripped-down lives of real working men and women. Marie models nude for artist Edgar Degas, and he produces a statue of her titled The Little Dancer Aged 14.
“It is not so much my nakedness. I hardly mind posing undressed, not for Monsieur Degas, not anymore, and thinking back to the way I quaked the first time, it makes me wonder what a girl can get used to, how the second time is easier than the first and the third time easier still,” Buchanan writes. As Marie stands naked before Degas, she is exposed not only physically but psychologically. Hard truths become clear to her.
Like Antoinette’s naturalist play, The Painted Girls is stark with realism. Life is difficult for Parisian laborers. Their lives are far from idyllic. Marie and Antoinette are bound by their gender, by their class, and by their facial features.
Marie bemoans the fact that she looks like a beast. During the time in which Buchanan sets The Painted Girls, many believed a person’s facial features could hint at one’s possible criminal nature. Facial characteristics, Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso argued, determined a person’s innate criminality: “monster in face, monster in soul.” Much of what happens to the sisters in this story seems tied to this theory. Buchanan chooses not to tell the story of the third sister because she was the pretty one, the one who ultimately became a ballerina, the one with perfect features. Her life diverged strongly from that of her sisters.
How much can the sisters get used to? Just how much can they take? Does “monster in face” really mean “monster in soul” as well? These are pertinent questions, especially when the reader learns the van Goethem sisters were real and lived in the same Paris slum that Buchanan brings to life so eloquently and so well.
Because Buchanan writes her story in the present tense, she lends The Painted Girls a strong immediacy. It is as if the events are happening now and not over 140 years ago. Buchanan immerses the reader so completely into Belle Époque Paris that she will feel like a lost van Goethem sister.
Buchanan’s Paris is not the Paris we know today. It’s not the “city of light”; nor is it the “city of love.” For the van Goethems and for others like them, from the slums to the Paris Opera to the studio of Degas to the underworld, Paris is a city of struggle. To survive, a girl has to dig down deep and make heart-wrenching choices. The Painted Girls is historically accurate, plush, and daring.