D is for dancing and Degas

I belong to a book club that meets at the Grand Island Memorial Library once a month. We read a variety of books, including fiction, classics, nonfiction, and memoir. The benefit of belonging to a book club is that you read books by authors who are unknown to you. There are books that I would have never chosen to read if left on my own devices. These include Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, and Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I now want to read more from these authors, and I am grateful to the book club for broadening my horizons.

This month’s book is The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan. This author was not unknown to me. I had previously read her first novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still. Ms. Buchanan is a Canadian author who grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario. She now lives in Toronto. The Day the Falls Stood Still is a tale of romance and living under the long shadow of the falls. In fact, Niagara Falls itself seems to be a living character in this book, set just before and during World War I.

Cathy Marie Buchanan’s book was chosen as this month’s book to help book club members be prepared to attend the library’s annual meeting in May, which will feature Cathy Marie Buchanan as the guest speaker.

Cathy Marie Buchanan’s second book, The Painted Girls, is set in France in the nineteenth century. It is about the van Goethem sisters, Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte. They were real people who went to the dance school at the Paris opera, where they learned ballet. Their lives were rough. Their father, a tailor, had died, and their mother was a washerwoman. She was an alcoholic, who got her consolation from a bottle of absinthe. Her income went to her beverage of choice, not to food for her daughters. The girls who attended the dance school and who aspired to become part of the ballet company were called “petits rats.” That doesn’t sound very complimentary of the children.

Marie became a model for the painter Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917). He was an impressionistic artist, although he claimed that he didn’t really like impressionism. She will live forever in the sculpture “Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” (Little Dancer of Fourteen Years). Charlotte, the youngest, lived to dance and she went on to a fifty-three year career as a ballerina and as a dance teacher.

The story, although based on the lives of three real sisters, is fiction. It is a compelling tale of people who struggle, despite great hardship, to make something of their lives. I learned a lot about dance and art, as well as a little about Degas, by reading this book. It is beautifully written, and well researched, and the characters come alive in the pages of the book. I would definitely recommend this book.

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