Degas captures the yearning of his subject so well in his sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. The tattered skirt, the 'common' features, the studied poise.
The artist makes several appearances in Cathy Marie Buchanan's novel. But this is not his story, it is the girls'.
While his sculpture of Marie was praised when it was unveiled in 1881, her appearance was roundly criticized as not only ugly but somehow criminal; it didn’t help that Degas exhibited the wax sculpture alongside his painting Criminal Physiognomies, the subjects of which were two young men on trial for murder.
“This was not a kind portrait of Marie van Goethem that he came up with, and he must have known that the critical reaction would be at least, in part, one of revulsion,” Buchanan says. “By and large, [the reviews] were about her being ugly, and that you could tell that she was going to come to no good. It was extremely negative. I have to believe it must have been a blow to her.”
How this would have affected Marie is only one part of The Painted Girls, which seeks to humanize the girl behind the sculpture. Buchanan wanted to write a book that presented “a possibility for her life, not some abstracted version.” In a way she’s done exactly what Degas did more than a century ago: taken a life and turned it into a sculpture, only from words instead of wax.
“I like that idea,” she says. “I feel like I’ve created a more kind portrait of Marie van Goethem than Degas did.” National Post
Her empathy for the characters brings you closer to them, but also makes the story more believable.
While some historic novels seem to thrust modern sensibilities into their characters' world views, others step back in time to give readers a taste of how people may have thought and felt during a period in history. Bringing characters to life, and life to characters.
Long after the French Revolution, growing up poor with two sisters and an alcoholic, abusive mother, where would dreams take you, and how could you build a future for yourself?
Ballet girl? Seamstress? Washerwoman? Prostitute? Wife?
It is no wonder Marie, Antoinette and Charlotte all aspire to life as ballerinas, encouraged by their mother at a very early age. It is a struggle to get into the ballet school, more of a struggle to advance to the stage, and then to rise through the ranks of the ballet corps. The novel is the story of that struggle, but also the relationship between the sisters.
The story is told primarily from the point of view of Antoinette and Marie, so there is the added opportunity to question how two very different personalities view the world, how that view shapes their choices, and how choice makes destiny.