Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Book 55: The Painted Girls

While I had already bought and decided to read this novel before this review by a fellow Cannonballer (which the author even responded to!), the review certainly helped move it towards the top of the pile.  While I didn't love it as much as Jamie, I enjoyed the novel.
The novel is told from the alternating perspectives of Antoinette, the older sister and protector of her two younger sisters, and Marie, the middle sister, the shy one with the most schooling.  The family has always assumed that Grace, the youngest, would be the professional ballerina, especially after Antoinette's attitude got her kicked off the troupe, but after their father's death, Marie and Grace both end up trying out for positions on the same day, and both make it.  Their mother is an alcoholic, and Antoinette sees herself as their guardian, taking care of Marie and Grace to the best of her ability.  Unfortunately she meets a boy, who becomes a major distraction for her, Emile, and as a result of his influence, she soon finds herself descending the rungs of society to help him when he gets in trouble.
Marie doesn't understand her usually intelligent and streetwise sister's attraction to Emile, but it isn't exactly a topic Antoinette is willing to discuss.  Instead, Marie focuses on her training, works extra jobs to help with her progression, and even is paid to model by Edgar Degas.  This exposure helps her find a sponsor, which is both a bad and a good thing.  The older rich man that takes an interest in her helps her monetarily but some of his interest is definitely less than kosher and makes the naive Marie uncomfortable.
I admit, I was expecting a slightly different story than the one I read - since the novel charts the progression of two sisters, one who is a descending star in the ballet world, while the other is on her way down, falling victim to the seedier side of Paris, I think I was expecting the high to be higher, though the low was rather low.  However, what I thought worked very well is the way that the sisters' success and failures paralleled each other - Marie may have been becoming more popular and accomplished in the theater but how much did the things she ended up doing truly contrast with her sister's actions?
While Marie and Antoinette have their differences, it is their relationship that anchors the novel, even if at points other things and people take priority.  The three sisters are actual historical figures and Emile is also pulled straight from history.  Of course, the idea that they ever interacted is the author's imagination, so while some of the big facts of their lives are used in the story, the feelings and things that drove them to those outcomes are conjecture on the author's part.  I actually liked the fact that the main characters of this historical fiction novel had a basis in reality beyond "this could have happened."  Still, I didn't get quite that attached to the characters, and I'm not sure whether that is because I didn't care as much about the relationship between sisters or because I've read so much historical fiction that it takes quite a lot to stand out to me.  As a result, while I liked the novel, it didn't hook me in the way it did some other readers.  And let's be honest - I've always been much more of an Anglophile than a Francophile.  While I've always felt the need to branch out, the fact is Paris just never entices me the same way that London does.  This isn't the novel's fault, but may very well be one of the reasons I didn't connect to this more.  Still, the novel is well-written, and I liked the concept behind the writing, showing that the author actually put some thought into this and some research.

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