Tutu Girls Walk Into a Barre: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

March 11, 2013 Art, Coming of Age, Historical Fiction 28

Bonjour, Bookworms!

Please excuse the pun, I cannot help myself. I’m incorrigible. Today we are taking a trip to 19th Century Paris as we discuss The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. I don’t know about you, but when I think of ballet, I think of frothy tutus and toe shoes. I danced growing up, so I can tell you that dance apparel is not inexpensive. Thus, I was surprised to learn that the ballet dancers of the famed opera houses were often more Gavroche than Baryshnikov. (It’s probably also part of the reason ballet loves super svelte dancers… The early ones were half starved!) The youngest of the ballet girls were known as the “petite rats,” and successful dancers were frequently, uh, sponsored? by creepy old dudes. So. Yeah. The beautiful ballet had a dirty, seedy, underbelly. Scandalous.


I suppose I shouldn’t be too shocked by this whole thing- this novel takes place a few decades after Les Miserablesit’s not as though a comprehensive initiative to eradicate poverty had been undertaken. This is a society where a girl could legally prostitute herself at the age of 16 (assuming she was declared STD free, of course. Syphilis was colloquially known as “French Pox.”) When artists were looking for ladies to model in the nude, they didn’t go knocking on the doors of aristocrats, what with all the young nubile flesh for sale. Edgar Degas was one such artist, and if you know anything about his art, you’ll know that ballet girls were among his favorite subjects. Much in the way Tracy Chevalier brought to life the subject in Vermeer’s painting in Girl With A Pearl EarringBuchanan does for Marie Van Goethem, the model for Degas’ sculpture Little Dancer Aged 14.

Marie lives in a sketchy Parisian neighborhood with her widowed, absinthe-swilling mother and her two sisters Antoinette and Charlotte. Antoinette had been a ballet girl, though she’d been tossed out of the company for mouthing off to the director. Instead she began working as an extra in the opera, earning a ridiculously small salary. After the death of their father (and the loss of his income) it is decided that Marie and Charlotte must audition to join the ballet school. Underfed “rats” from the wrong side of the proverbial tracks they may be, but super flexible hips are a commodity worth paying for. Both Charlotte and Marie begin their dance careers, in large part to contribute to the family baguette fund. Dancing for their suppers, as it were.

Image from Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is the sculpture in question. Image from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Eventually Marie catches the eye of Degas, and she is more than willing to pose for him in varying states of undress if it keeps her family from starving (absinthe isn’t cheap, you know.) While Marie is busy being naked in front of weird old men, Antoinette strikes up a romance with a potentially sketchy fellow named Emile, who seems incapable of saving money but terribly fond of spending it (bad combination, Antoinette!) Both Marie and Antoinette (LET THEM EAT CAKE!) try to find ways to hustle for cash so tiny Charlotte will be less affected by their poverty.

In the spirit of not being a major spoilsport, I shall tell you that this novel contains prostitution, petty theft, murder, guillotines, alcoholism, scientific misinformation, and one rather disturbing incident of animal cruelty (you’ve been warned.) It’s all based on true events! A triumph of historical fiction, my friends.

So, Bookworms, how much do you love it when art imitates art?! I even made a list of such novels on Riffle! (Not on Riffle and want to be?! Let me know and I’ll send you an invite.) Tell me, Bookworms. Ballet, street urchins, Paris, art. and scandal- you’ve got to have thoughts on some of those things. Tell me, tell me, tell me!

28 Responses to “Tutu Girls Walk Into a Barre: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan”

  1. Amanda

    Your posts make me so incredibly jealous (because I wish had the time to read all of these) and at the same time so thankful that you do these reviews. I don’t always comment, but you have a constant reader in me.

  2. lostinliterature108

    I’ve never heard of this book. I LOVE ballet. Thanks for the review and the clever title.:)

    (Darlene has an online user name now….Yippee!)

      • lostinliterature108

        When I can find a tutor.:) Wanna come south and help me? I have all these blog ideas just scratched out on all these pieces of scrap paper. It’s pitiful. I need someone to help me put the layout I see in my head on the computer.

  3. therelentlessreader

    Yes, yes, triple yes to this book! Nudity and art and jail and absinthe! I loved this one from start to finish 🙂

    • Words for Worms

      It’s really not super graphic and it’s not long, but yeah, its there and it’s kind of an important plot point. Everybody’s got that one thing they just can’t handle reading about. I thought I’d warn those who prefer to avoid it, you know? Glad to hear from another former wannabe! I should have posted photos of my ballet self, but I wasn’t very good, and I was kind of chubby, so I don’t want my leotard clad self on the internet. Unless I’m a small child in the photo. Because that’s cute.

  4. Leah

    I haven’t read The Painted Girls, but it sounds kind of similar to a book that came out last year called The Last Nude, by Ellis Avery. It takes place in Paris in the 1920s and is told from the point of view of the girl in Tamara de Lempicka’s famous nude painting called The Beautiful Rafaela. Nothing is actually known about this girl, but the book imagines her as an Italian-American who comes to Paris and kind of whores herself out all over the place and then becomes de Lempicka’s lover/muse. Also, there’s a character who is Hemingway in everything but name. You might like it!

    • Words for Worms

      That does sound like it’s up my alley. Does the Hemingway type character make you want to punch him? I wanted do some pummeling while reading The Paris Wife…

    • Words for Worms

      Holy crap! I can’t believe you found my little hole in the internet! I feel like I just ran into Mary Poppins in Starbucks! (Which means, I’m flabbergasted and happy and all sorts of things in one!)

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