It's no secret to my regular readers here that I read a fair amount of historical fiction. I'm not so picky about subgenre, oddly enough: historical mystery, romance, thriller, family saga--I'll read it all. Okay, I might pass on the heavy-duty military novels, but otherwise, I'm pretty game. When it comes to time and place, however, that is when I tend to get a little choosy. Certain places and periods of time just speak to me, whether it be England in the time of the Tudors, Italy during the Renaissance, Japan in the 1800s, they simply call out to me, and I tend to find novels set in these times and places to be particularly fascinating, given the right characters and plot, of course.
Having studied French for a number of years (how useful that is now, who can say) and spent some time there in my younger days, I have a bit of a soft spot for French history and also for French art. The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan fits the bill on all counts. Three sisters, left with only their drunken laundress mother for support after the death of their father, aim for something better than subsistence in Paris. The youngest, Charlotte, dreams only of the stage at the Paris Opera, hoping to surpass her older sisters and be a star ballet dancer. The eldest, Antoinette, has been dismissed by the Opera for a number of reasons and struggles to help support her mother and sisters even as she falls in love with the wrong sort of boy and makes terrible mistakes with her trust.
And then there is the middle sister. Bookish Marie, in the wake of her father's death, must put aside the education she loves and financially contribute to the household as well. As a student at the ballet school, Marie catches the eye of Monsieur Edgar Degas, who invites her to pose for him. Marie leaps at the chance to earn some extra money, and ultimately became the subject for one of his few sculptures exhibited during his lifetime, Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. Marie, otherwise a footnote in Degas' career, flourishes in Buchanan's novel, becoming a deeply complex character motivated by fear, longing, and family devotion.
The Painted Girls was one of those novels I hated to see end, full of hope, struggle and redemption. The characters were so vividly drawn, the period so beautifully captured, I just adored it. Very highly recommended.