Friday, July 11, 2014

The Painted Girls - BOOK REVIEW

Edgar Degas was a French painter living in Paris in the late 1800's who is thought of as one of the first Impressionists. Degas did not identify with the Impressionist movement and instead thought of himself as a realist. He painted portraits of the French lower class citizens, such as laundresses and milliners, hauntingly capturing their isolation and despair.

Many of his works depict young ballerinas, known as 'petite rats', showing the fatigue and hopelessness they felt while trying to raise from poverty to stars upon the ballet stage. In 1879 he created a famous sculpture called 'Little Dancer of Fourteen Years', showing a young girl with a low brow, jutting chin and squinty eyes.

During this period phrenology, or the measuring of the skull to indicate brain function and impulses, was becoming popular. When Degas showed his sculpture at a Paris exhibition reviewers widely praised the sculpture but criticised the subject, suggesting that the 14 year old girl's features indicated evil, stupidity and a general low nature.

The same exhibition featured a painting by Degas called 'Criminal Physiognomies'. Two young men who were on trial for gang-related murders were shown, also bearing sloped foreheads, heavy brows and squinty eyes like the young ballerina. The newspapers seized upon the similarities and cruelly insinuated the 14 year old girl was destined for a life of crime.

The Painted Girls is the story of Marie van Goethem, the young girl who inspired Degas to create his famous sculpture. Canadian author Cathy Marie Buchanan bases her story in real history, giving a voice to Marie and her sisters as they try to survive living on the slopes of Montmartre during the Belle Epoque of 19th century Paris.

The reader enters a world of hope, temptation and mire where every day is a tightrope walk and one misstep can send you into disgrace. The ballet is a place for young girls to be sold off to rich Patrons, the caf├ęs are where desperate young men ponder jail time as a respite from everyday struggles and the wash house is a place for making money to feed your absinthe addiction.

I couldn't put this book down because the description of the people and the scenes are so rich that I kept thinking about their world when I was not reading about it. The themes of good and evil, obsession and ultimately the bond between sisters will leave you heartbroken and satisfied at the same time. Is Marie destined for the life of crime that her features suggested? This is a great summer read that will allow you to escape to a completely different time and place.

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