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'The Painted Girls' review: Captivating tale of sisters' bond

"The Painted Girls" by Cathy Marie Buchannan (Riverhead, January 2013) Credit: Handout

THE PAINTED GIRLS, by Cathy Marie Buchanan. Riverhead, 353 pp., $27.95

Edgar Degas' 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 balancing en pointe. 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.

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' statuette at age 14. But Charlotte, 7, self-absorbed, pretty, craving bright sashes, is the natural dancer.

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 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 discovers this theory in a newspaper article and, since her face exhibits these characteristics, is haunted by the implications.

Degas' statuette of Marie does nothing to hide those characteristics, while her ambiguous pose -- chin elevated impertinently, arms saucily behind her back, hips thrust forward -- suggests a defiant attitude. 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. Integrating three real murderers with the three girls' histories is a brilliant act of imagination that drives the novel, producing a compelling story of yearning for love in the face of ugliness and brutality.

"The Painted Girls" is a captivating story of fate, tarnished ambition and the ultimate triumph of sister-love.

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