They entertained the elite and inspired artists, but 19th-century ballerinas lived lives that were far from beautiful. With this gritty tale, we get an insider’s tour of what the real-life world of these bewitching creatures might have been like.
Why we love it: Cathy Marie Buchanan captures life in Paris during the belle époque—and the poverty at the time—with raw, rich imagery. The alternating narratives of ballet-dancing sisters Antoinette and Marie show their different approaches to life but make the closeness between them and their younger sister, Charlotte, utterly tangible. You’ll be swept up in this emotional tale of strength and survival, punctuated by tantalizing facts about the world of ballet and the artists of the time.
What it’s about: With a dead father and ever-absent mother, the van Goethem girls are left to fend for themselves. Antoinette, the eldest and guardian, is spirited and mouthy; Marie, the middle child, quietly determined; Charlotte, the youngest, rambunctious and ready for the spotlight. Living in one room, they pawn what they can, burn essentials for warmth and sleep huddled on a single mattress. When Antoinette falls for local vagabond Émile Abadie and begins to neglect Marie and Charlotte, their only hope is to rise through the ranks of the Paris Opera Ballet School. While there, Marie captures the attention of artist Edgar Degas and the sinister Monsieur Lefebvre, who wants more from her than a mere pose. The three sisters must learn to navigate these and other dangers that threaten to come between them—and threaten to undermine their livelihoods.
The inspiration: Buchanan, who took ballet in high school, stumbled across a documentary on Degas’ painting and sculpture Small Dancer Aged 14 and was immediately hooked on the true-life tale of the van Goethem girls. “The shock value of the documentary got me. Today ballet is thought of as quite a middle-class pursuit, but back then a lot of the dancers were from poverty-stricken families.”
Talking points: Sisterhood, love, ballet, art, poverty, survival.
The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan, $23.
Start reading next month’s pick: Indiscretion, Charles Dubow, $28.