Buchanan (The Day the Falls Stood Still, 2009) brings the unglamorous reality of the late-19th-century Parisian demimonde into stark relief while imagining the life of Marie Van Goethem, the actual model for the iconic Degas statue Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.
Marie is the middle Van Goethem sister, the plain one who loves reading. Seven-year-old Charlotte has the looks and charm, while street-wise 17-year-old Antoinette is burdened with raising her sisters because their widowed mother spends most of her meager income as a washerwoman on absinthe. Kicked out of the Paris Opera ballet school but earning a little as an extra, Antoinette arranges for Marie and Charlotte to enter the school—dance is a way to avoid working in the wash house. Soon, Marie attracts the attention of the painter Degas. When he asks her to model for him, she jumps at the chance, both for the money and the attention. Through Degas, she meets Monsieur Lefebvre, one of the wealthy men who “adopt” ballet students of promise. Soon, she is able to quit her part-time job at the neighborhood bakery where she has captured the heart of the owner’s son. Meanwhile, Antoinette gets a tiny part in Zola’s controversial play L’Assommoir and falls in love with another extra, Émile Abadie. As the story progresses, the sisters come dangerously close to self-destruction.
Buchanan does a masterful job of interweaving historical figures into her plot, but it is the moving yet unsentimental portrait of family love, of two sisters struggling to survive with dignity, that makes this a must-read.