Based on general facts, Cathy Buchanan weaves the lives of three impoverished, fatherless sisters with that of criminality and art.
The van Goethem sisters live in Paris in the late 1800’s. Their mother: an absinthe drinking laundress is barely part of their lives. However, sunk in alcoholism there are tiny touches of sensitivity which hark back to a pre-absinth time. The eldest sister, Antoinette, fails at keeping her position at the Paris Opera Ballet due to her sharp tongue. But, she manages to get her younger sisters, Marie and Charlotte an audition and this is where the story begins.
During her time at the Paris Opera, Marie models for Degas who obsessively sketches her muscular legs and contorted, straining, emaciated body in various ballet poses. During this time he produces the wax sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Antoinette begins dating the sweet-talking Emile Abadie. These unrelated events become entwined and lead the sisters down darker paths.
Degas Passion and Intellect by Thames & Hudson
Buchanan explains that during this period Zola was arguing for scientific literature – presenting a deterministic view of human life. Degas sculptures and pastels pertain to Zola’s ideas that certain facial features hinted at a person’s innate criminality. Buchanan is interested in how this might have affected the life of a teenage model.
As the story plays out we see Abadie and his friend, Knobloch, accused of multiple murders. It is discussed that they both have ‘criminal’ faces. Marie begins to examine her own features, sees a similarity and wonders at her fate. Her destiny is determined when she becomes involved in the trial of these men and guilt begins to eat her up. When she visits the 6th Exposition of Independent Artists in 1881, where the sculpture of her is exhibited, she sees it is alongside Degas’s other work – a sketch, Criminal Physiognomies, and it propels her further into darkness. She believes her fate is written and she too will be a criminal; Marie descends into a spiral of self-destruction.
The story, written from the perspectives of Marie and Antoinette, is an intimate look at the relationship between the van Goethem sisters battling against their ‘predestined’ fates. Buchanan captures the sisterly tenderness and the fierce protectiveness felt between siblings and how it sits uniquely alongside spiteful comments and physical quarrels.
I enjoyed this book, mainly because of that intimate relationship and also because of my interest in Degas and Zola. My disappointment came mainly with the lack of a Parisian feel. I love Paris and reading Parisian novels, but although there were references to place, it didn’t capture the essence. I never really felt as if I was in Paris, it could have been three sisters placed anywhere. I wanted to feel the dirty, seductiveness of Paris in the 1800’s specifically on the art scene.
Overall, it was a good read, but not what I expected.