My book reviews are written as a discussion of a book, and not as an advertisement. Please be aware that there may be information that some would consider spoilers. Continue on at your own risk!
After reading a CBR5 review of this book, I decided to give it a shot, although it’s outside of my normal sci fi / fantasy choices. The reviews reminded me of Memoirs of a Geisha, a book (and movie) which I adore. The Painted Girls sounded like a French version with ballet dancers instead of Geisha’s. Did this book measure up to my expectations? Here’s what I thought…
After the death of their father, and the unreliability of an alcoholic mother, three girls try to take care of themselves in the slums of Paris. The oldest daughter, Antoinette, is rejected from the Opera because of her attitude, and begins to work at the laundry to help make ends meet. The middle child, Marie, who was in school (and the only sister who can read) had to quit school to also work (dance) at the Opera. The youngest sister, Charlotte, also begins at the Opera, with hopes of raising through the ranks. Antoinette does a good job of taking care of the family, until she meets bad boy Emile. Falling in love with Emile, she starts shirking her responsibilities for time with him- to the point where after he is convicted of murder (yes, he’s that bad), she resorts to prostitution with dreams of following him to New Caladonia. At this point, Marie starts picking up some of the responsibility, and she takes a relationship with her ‘sponsor’ too far, and starts to fall apart (resorting to alcohol). After stealing money from a client, Antoinette is sentenced to 3 months of jail and has an ‘ah ha’ moment there. She realizes Emile’s character and focuses on taking care of her family.
“It is about being born downtrodden and staying that way. Hard work makes no difference, he is saying. My lot, the lots of those around me, were cast the moment we were born into the gutter to parents who never managed to step outside the gutter themselves.”
I really thought that this story was going to mirror the play in the book (summarized by the above quote). They would not be able to rise above their circumstances, and I prepared myself for the worst. They were able to redeem themselves in the end, and make a nice life for themselves.
Plot Score: 4/5
Location, Location, Location
A slum in Paris during the 1800’s. I believe the writing captured the feel of that time and location, not to mention the specifics of the Opera and the ballet and the art scene at the time.
Location Score: 4/5
Characters and Relationships
Antoinette- At first she lived only for herself, and that part of the story was boring. Once she meet Emile, she fell in love and sacrificed for him. She didn’t make great decisions, but her story became more interesting.
“Already I know I want his hot breath upon my skin again, his stroking fingers upon my fresh. If he don’t come begging to me, I am going begging to him, and I don’t see any point in pretending something different for an evening or a day”
When Antoinette wants something – she puts 100% into it (including lying when convenient, staying with a boy after he is convicted of murder), whether it’s a failing relationship or her sisters. When she is with Emile, it’s like watching a train wreck- we know nothing good is going to come of it, but we keep watching. I was at the point where I was hoping Emile would get the death penalty so Antoinette could be set free. But, she freed herself in the most appropriate way. Her defining moment was when she realized how her behavior affected her sisters. At that point, she decided to tell one more lie- one to clear her sisters conscience.
Marie- I had high hopes for Marie. I thought she was going to ‘make it’. But when her sister abandoned her for a boy, she was left in charge. Unable to handle the pressure, she started spiraling out of control, and relying on alcohol (like her mom). She is not as ‘hard’ as Charlotte and Antoinette, she is educated, she is sensitive and she cares about her family, more than dancing. After burning evidence that would prove Emile guilty of a second murder, to stop her sister from wasting her future on ‘that boy’. She knows she did the right thing, but she can’t handle the guilt of the conviction of Emile and Knobloch. Antoinette’s last lie is to tell Marie that the evidence was not authentic.
Characters Score: 5/5
Life Lessons (fka Bigger Meaning)
“Sisters before Misters”. Based on Antoinette’s evolution during the book, I really think this is a story of the importance of family, and understanding our importance in others lives.
Bigger Meaning Score: 3/5
Opening Line: “Monsieur LeBlanc leans against the doorframe, his arms folded over a belly grown round on pork crackling. A button is missing from his waistcoat, pulled too tight for the threads to bear.”
The opening line did pull me in, I especially like the phrase “Pulled too tight for the threads to bear.”
This book is like a beautiful song. It starts soft, it gets dark, it has a final crescendo. The plot, the emotions, the growth of the character, were masterfully put together.
It was difficult to get the terminology- there was some french terms I had to look up on wiki, and some ballet terms that I had not encountered before. After I got familiar with the language, it was much easier (and clearer) reading.
Style Score: 4/5
– It was one of the books that requires a breather before reading another book. You need time to digest the characters and the plot.