Title: The Painted Girls
Author: Cathy Marie Buchanan
Rating: 2 stars
I would like to propose a moratorium on the first person present tense narrative. It’s vastly overused these days, to the point where it no longer conveys the sense of desperation and urgency it’s supposed to. It’s becoming a useless literary conceit.
The use of first person present awkwardly interspersed with past-tense recollections is just one of the structural problems of Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls. Buchanan is a bestselling author and The Painted Girls is getting rave reviews, but it’s difficult for me to see why. To me it read like an MFA student’s first draft, unpolished and occasionally nearly unreadable. I have to wonder if I read the same book as everyone else seems to be.
The Painted Girls follows sisters Antoinette and Marie as they grow up in 1880s Paris, struggling with crippling poverty, sexual coercion and threats, and the demanding standards of the world of the Opera. Antoinette, the stereotypical “bad” sister, is a liar and petty thief who is soon swept off her feet by a charismatic lover who brings out the worst in her, and eventually leads her to a life of prostitution and crime. Marie, the “good” girl, is a passive, insecure character obsessed with physiognomy and the idea that, because she is ugly, she is destined to become a criminal. Despite working hard and succeeding as a dancer, an artist’s model, and the de-facto savior of her family, she too eventually degenerates into a life of debasement. It is only seeing Marie laid low that breaks Antoinette out of her cycle of bad decisions, and eventually the two sisters reconcile, there is a drippingly sentimental postscript, and all is right with Antoinette and Marie, although the systematic problems of their era remain unaddressed.
The bare-bones plot of The Painted Girls offers many points of interest. Antoinette and Marie are ballet dancers of the Paris Opera, they exist on the edges of the world of great artists like Degas and Zola, their poverty-stricken neighborhood is full of criminals and violence. The sheer drama of two very different sisters trying to lead their own lives but coming into conflict with each other should create a compelling narrative in itself. But the writing does not hold up. There are a few engaging and memorable scenes (specifically, the first scene of Emile’s seduction of Antoinette, and some of the scenes in Degas’ studio). The rest of the book is a muddle of too many styles, bad pacing, and unsympathetic characters.
The two sisters swap off first person present tense narratives, interspersed at random with newspaper accounts and Degas sonnets. Marie’s sections are the better of the two, even though she sometimes weighs the narrative down with her many anxieties. Antoinette’s sections are in large part difficult to read. The dialogue is laughable, the narrating language stilted and full of errors. This is apparently supposed to convey that Antoinette is the less educated of the pair, but instead of creating an authentic dialect, Buchanan just layers on tortured, awkward turns of phrase.
Most distracting for me, for some reason, Buchanan seems not to believe in possessive nouns. Instead of “Marie’s hand,” “LeBlanc’s stare,” “Charlotte’s mouth,” the reader must stumble around “the hands of Marie,” “the stare of LeBlanc,” “the pouting mouth of Charlotte.” Used sparingly, this structure can add a delicate beauty to scenes, but it was used so overwhelmingly that I came to dread seeing it.
The pacing is also a mess. The early chapters wander, as the sisters delve into long tangents and timelines overlap, while the end is rushed. The use of two narrators means that chapters towards the end of the book often span no more than three paragraphs long, roughly jolting the reader between viewpoints when one or the other would do. The sentimental ending completely negates all the work of the rest of the novel; instead of seeing the characters grow and change into what they are fifteen years later, the reader is presented with an expository infodump about how sisterly love trumps all adversity.
Ultimately, The Painted Girls fails to come to any real resolutions. It’s a bunch of set pieces on a stage, with little depth and nothing memorable except its errors.
(This book was read as an uncorrected proof. I can’t speak to how any changes to the text may have affected my reading experience.)