Book: Historical Fiction but Degas This Time

Cathy Marie Buchanan, The Painted Girls, 2013.

This is more for submissions to agents. The Painted Girls takes place in Belle Epoque Paris and is about a family of sisters. There is a mother and 3 girls, but the older daughters Marie and Antoinette (pretty sure the names are deliberate) are the most important. There is also Charlotte, the youngest. They are all at some point in their young lives aspiring ballet dancers, for whom other things get in the way.

Among the main themes are biology and the relationship of beauty to goodness. The issue of the “criminal type” or “criminal physiognomy” is constantly recurring. Eugenics was reaching new heights in this period, and Marie especially struggles with her own looks and how they may relate to her spirit.

Buchanan has a way of writing that I couldn’t really get into. She writes a bit like a dream. There were times when I would read a sentence or a paragraph and then go, what?, and have to read it again. The prose is clear–it’s not like Morrison or Faulkner–but it’s nevertheless somehow hard to read. Buchanan writes long, noun-y sentences, so to speak, and it can be hard to follow. The action is, as I say, dreamlike, and sometimes hard to follow.

In addition, I was frustrated by the ending. Contemporary literary fiction seems to suffer from much the same ailment we see in fantasy: the expectation that there must be a happy ending. I wouldn’t say the ending of The Painted Girls is happy, but it isn’t tragic. In itself, that isn’t a complaint, but the arc of the story leads almost inexorably to tragedy, but is rescued by a (morally questionable) act by Antoinette toward the end. I couldn’t help but feel cheated by the epilogue, which assures us that things more or less work out.

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