Edgar Degas’s wax-and-fabric statuette “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” has held the curiosity of millions in its 28 bronze reproductions, but far fewer know the heart-rending history of the model, Marie van Goethem, and her sisters. In “The Painted Girls,” a historically based work of fiction rich with naturalistic details of late-19th-century Paris, Cathy Marie Buchanan paints the girls who spring from the page as vibrantly as a dancer’s leap across a stage.
Living in the slum of lower Montmartre, the girls aspire to be dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet, a resource for urchins to save themselves from life on the streets by turning their legs out, balancing en pointe, leaping and spinning. Practicing long hours and fighting exhaustion and malnutrition, they could earn a meager income if they remain at the lowest rank of petit rat, but they could lead lavish lives if they climb to stardom. Such was the dream of the van Goethem sisters.
When the novel opens, 17-year-old Antoinette has been dismissed from the ballet school for willfulness and belligerence. Marie, unattractive and exceptionally skinny, is harder-working, achieves short-lived success and poses for Degas’s statuette at age 14. But Charlotte, 7, self-absorbed, pretty, craving bright sashes, is the natural dancer.
Alternating Marie’s point of view with Antoinette’s, the novel contrasts the sheer pleasure of dancing with sharp depictions of brothels, prisons and the guillotine. Despite their grace and achievement (Marie executes 16 breathtaking fouettes en tournant, similar to pirouettes, thus winning a place on stage), the two oldest sisters are bound for calamity. Through their bad decisions, lying, thieving and prostitution of one sort or another, one reads on, compelled by love for these girls whom Buchanan describes so compassionately.
It’s a story in the vein of 19th-century naturalism, as deterministic as a Zola novel. As Buchanan reports, the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, corroborated by French anthropologists, theorized that certain cranial characteristics appearing in prehistoric man occur so frequently among modern criminals that they are scientific predictors of depravity: a low, sloping forehead, broad cheekbones, a forward thrust of the lower face. Poor Marie, the only sister who reads, discovers this theory in a newspaper article, and since her face exhibits these characteristics, she is haunted by the implications.
Lombroso’s theories were credited by the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas, who depicted prostitutes, cabaret entertainers, dancers and criminals with these telltale features. His two-thirds life-size statuette of Marie does nothing to hide those characteristics, while her ambiguous pose — chin elevated impertinently, crooked teeth pushing out her lips, vulgarly upturned nose, arms saucily behind her back, hips thrust forward — suggests a defiant attitude, if not brazen impudence. Displaying “Little Dancer” alongside “Criminal Physiognomies” in the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition, Degas might have been alluding to the unsavory private lives of the dancers he painted in their frothy skirts working so hard to become nymphs, swans and fairies. Thus, this novel poses the question: Is a descent into wretchedness inevitable?
Buchanan shows Marie unwillingly sucked into a glittering salon where wealthy subscribers to the opera ogle and interact with the performers. Lavishing money and gifts on destitute girls, the men become patrons of individual dancers. Thus, the purity of a dancer’s life devoted to beauty is tarnished by prurient expectations.
Integrating three actual murderers with the three girls’ histories is another brilliant act of imagination that drives the novel, producing a compelling story of yearning for love in the face of ugliness and brutality. Wheeling out of control, the two older girls descend from their pretty pirouettes to misery, their mutual affection torn apart for a time. Nevertheless, Buchanan makes us feel they are good at heart. “The Painted Girls” is a captivating story of fate, tarnished ambition and the ultimate triumph of sister-love.
THE PAINTED GIRLS
By Cathy Marie Buchanan
Riverhead. 353 pp. $27.95