I haven’t wanted to cry after finishing a novel in a very long time. I don’t know if my emotional, visceral response to the novel I just finished should be attributed to the plot, or to the characters, or to the setting, that lovely, bright city of Paris which I recently visited and feel strangely homesick for at this moment. I’m sure that my feelings result from a combination of all three things – in any case, I guess I can sum up my emotions by saying that Cathy Marie Buchanan’s novel The Painted Girls was extremely enjoyable and extremely moving.
I love Paris, and I’m pleased to be able to speak about Paris as a pseudo-authority, considering that I was in the city only about a month ago. Coincidentally, my favourite place in Paris was (and always has been) the Opéra Garnier, the absolutely gorgeous, ornately designed building where the Angel of Music first pursued Christine Daaé. My passion for French literature and culture (and my desire to master the language) stems from my interest in the dark, mysterious secrets of the Paris Opera House, an interest that was piqued when I was only a little girl and became curious about the life of the 19th century ballet dancer. Reading Buchanan’s The Painted Girls offered me the opportunity to step into the slippers of one of those very women: it gave me access to the shaded corridors, the hidden staircases and the backstage dramas. What was most surprising for me was that the life of a young, talented danseuse was not at all as glamorous as I imagined it to be…and that is where the strength of Buchanan’s story and its sentimental poignancy lies, in my opinion.
The tale of Antoinette and Marie van Goethem, and their little sister Charlotte, is a complicated story, to say the least. If any novel could be described as an emotional rollercoaster, this is it. At approximately the halfway point of the novel, I remember struggling to describe the novel to myself. Was it a book I was happy about reading or that I looked forward to picking up every night? Not really, but most definitely not because of any failing in the work itself! Buchanan’s writing style is lovely and vivid and very poetic, and the plot is fast-paced (I appreciated that time passed quickly and that several days or months were often encompassed in, or in between, single chapters). My reluctance to return to the novel after a long and hectic day of work stemmed from the fact that the novel is sorrowful. It seems to be a tragedy (at least until the very end), and it is almost literally heart wrenching. I actually felt anxiety for the two main characters, Antoinette and Marie, and Buchanan’s writing is so detailed and the girls’ voices are so distinct that it is hard not to feel for them and with them. It is clear that Buchanan loves her characters very much because she allows them to speak so clearly for themselves (except for Charlotte, whose voice I would’ve liked to hear directly in narration), with their endearing accents and everything! I grew to love the girls, but in very different ways. I couldn’t decide, at different points in the story, if Antoinette was selfish or if Marie was unreasonable, but I always knew that I never faulted either of the girls or blamed them for their confusion, hypocrisy and inconsistency. Buchanan has created a deterministic, naturalistic novel akin to something that Zola would’ve written: her characters are victims of their circumstances, of their environment and situation, and so they cannot really be faulted for acting less than perfectly or consistently.
I will say that I probably grew to love Antoinette the most, but only because I recognized the greatest evolution in her. She is one of the roundest characters I have ever encountered, and she is not only sharp, strong and quick-witted, she also becomes a truly compassionate human being and she is the most loving, caring sister from the start. She’s a real inspiration because she’s at once bold and defiant, not buckling under the pressure and injustice of her society, as well as sensitive and hopeful. Her love for Émile Abadie, although destructive, is pure and (without spoiling too much) it touches the reader profoundly to be able to witness her journey so closely and experience her jumbled, progressive feelings so intimately. Antoinette’s narrative is responsible for some of the lines I adored most in the novel, some of the most eloquently written lines that I’ve come across in prose in a very long time:
“How was it those two girls could not see what was before their own eyes, how Émile made me step light and breathe deep? The feeling was like the one that comes on the first day of spring – with the sunshine and the warm breezes and the whole world waking up – except that the day kept coming again and again.”
“Someday I might ask Marie what it all says, but for now I keep it in a hiding place, wedged into a gap between the chimneypiece and the wall, only getting it out late at night to make a little x, marking the day as a day I was adored.”
“But what she don’t have figured out is already I scrubbed myself clean of Émile Abadie, washed away the filth of him in a river of tears.”
The Opéra Garnier is beautiful – I know that for a fact; I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Paris is magical – anyone who’s ever wanted to visit it knows that. But the world of 19th century Paris from the eyes of two poor, underprivileged, often overlooked and belittled young girls is not so beautiful or magical, and Buchanan’s novel portrays this fact expertly.
Girl with a Green Heart