I have been making a self-conscious effort to keep reading some bestsellers, mixed in among my other lists. I like knowing what people are reading, and increasing my chances of being able to discuss books with anyone I meet. Given that a lot of what I also read is obscure, classics, or science fiction, it seems like a necessary ingredient in my overall reading mix.
It has also, on occasion, been disappointing. I've read those books that make me arch an eyebrow and go "Wait, this is a bestseller? Why?" There have been others that have been passable, but really nothing special. Well, I have to tell you, this is one of the best bestsellers I've read in a while.
It's not so wonderful that I have immediately become evangelical about it, but it's a damned solid historical novel, and avoids many of the pitfalls that have made me a little wary of some historical fiction. This is a good book, with interesting characters, and Buchanan weaves in threads of intellectual history that I know did exist at the time into the lives of her characters, not always with subtlety, but with purpose. I might not have always completely bought exactly the reactions of her characters, but I appreciated her research!
And, thank goodness, she avoids infodumps. So many writers of historical fiction feel the need to shower upon their readers page after page showing how familiar they are with their settings. This is not necessary, and at worst, it's very irritating. Writers need to do their research, know their setting intimately, and then avoid the temptation to show that knowledge off, and merely use it when it is pertinent to the story, when it actually elucidates something, when it enriches a scene or is essential to the action.
She also avoids melodrama, which I appreciate. But that's a lot of talking about the kinds of historical fiction that make me frustrated, so let's talk about what this book is instead of what it isn't.
The Painted Girls is a novel about three sisters in Paris, one of whom really was painted and sculpted by Degas. They are exceedingly poor. They are not, thankfully, commensurately saintly. They are not cute, or precious, or symbols of anyything. Buchanan succeeds in making each girl only herself. The oldest, Antoinette, used to be one of the petit rats, one of the little girls hired by the ballet. Now she does walk-on roles in the Opera, trying to help her mother, an absinthe-addicted laundress, support her younger sisters. She's also in love with a young man who her sister thinks is dangerous, but she believes loves her truly. (And honestly, I got suckered on how this one turned out. Good work!)
Her younger sister Marie is just starting at the ballet as a petit rat, with obvious talent, but few looks to match her dancing ability. She is the one Degas wants to paint, and the author's note at the end about the exhibition in which her sculpture was shown, and the discussions that have gone on since about why Degas might have included it in that particular show shed some interesting light on some of her overall themes.
The youngest sister, Charlotte, is least integral to the story, but she is young, an excellent dancer, and arrogant about it. She has the kind of talent and shamelessness about showing it that might not endear her to anyone.
The actual story goes back and forth between chapters narrated by Antoinette and Marie, and we follow their efforts to survive, to keep going, to have enough to eat. The book wisely picks a middle path. It doesn't whitewash how hard it is, but it also has no sense of outraged bourgeois morality. These are the decisions these girls might make, and Buchanan does an excellent job of showing why. She also does not make the mistake of having her characters be irredeemably ruined by their actions, and that rings true in the fiction, but also mirrors nicely what we know about women who sold sex in the 19th century.
Interwoven with this are contemporary notions of heredity and eugenics, and these are used in interesting ways, although I was not always convinced that Marie would take them as gospel truth in quite the way she did. That was the one note that seemed a little off to me. But otherwise, they provide a tapestry that also, subtly, influenced the range of reactions of people to the poor, the limits it helped put on how they could imagine the lives of those who survived on so little.
It's not a perfect book, but I love the research, the characters are excellently done, and the setting is used to great effect and not to batter me about the ears with how much the author knows. Consequently, I am far more convinced of her mastery of her subject than I would have been if she'd felt the need to show it off.