52 books, 52 weeks, Week 4: The Painted Girls

When I was four or five, I took my first -- and only -- ballet class with my best friend, Tasha. I'm not sure why my parents signed me up for this class. I was a tomboy. I didn't like tutus or princesses and, having red hair, I hated the color pink. So, it's no surprise that my memories of it are all negative. My tights always seemed to be sagging and dirtied at the knees, and the endless repetition at the barre between first, second, third and fourth position seemed pointless to me. I have a vague impression that I exasperated my teacher, but that's probably wishful thinking. In reality, I was probably just one of the flotsam of girls who went in and out of her class, forgotten before the gym door clanged shut behind them.

Why am I telling you this? Well, this week's read for my 52 books in 52 weeks project is Cathy Marie Buchanan's The Painted Girls, the story of the Van Goethem sisters, one of whom was Degas' inspiration for his sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Set in Belle Époque Paris (which ran from app. 1871-1914), it's a mix of true details of about the sisters -- all ballet dancers of varying success -- mixed with a true-life murder mystery that existed in Paris at the same time.

Buchanan was herself a dancer, and the verisimilitude of her descriptions of a dancer's life are clearly drawn from her experience. But Buchanan does more than just write about what she knows; that same verisimilitude wends through the whole book: the grinding poverty in which the sisters live, the interaction between them, the daily life of a Parisian all come to life in her capable hands.

As those of you who read this column regularly know (and thanks, by the way), I picked this book because last week's bestseller was a book that made no sense to read and I was sure that The Painted Girls was going to be on the list this week. I'm happy to report that my prediction came true: it debuted at #23 on the Hardcover list. Now, if only this power of prediction translated into stock picks ...

Anyway! It's a great book, the attention it has been getting is deserved, and, personally, reading it made me wish I'd tried harder in ballet class.

On to next week, where we'll be taking a dip into the YA list: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It's thin and someone gave it to me for Christmas. Excellent. (Oh, and I heard it's really good, too.)