‘The Painted Girls’ author drops in on Hawthorn Woods book club
Author, Cathy Marie Buchanan of Canada, visits a local book club to discuss her book, The Painted Girls, at the home of Celia Schneider on Friday, February 15, 2013. | Ruthie Hauge~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 22, 2013 9:56AM
HAWTHORN WOODS — It was a special night for a neighborhood book club in Hawthorn Woods on Friday.
The author of the acclaimed novel, The Painted Girls, which club members recently read, paid a personal visit.
Cathy Marie Buchanan was in town from Toronto visiting her sister in Gurnee.
“We’re just kind of a neighborhood group,” said club member Judi Thode. “This is a new experience for us to have the author attend.”
The Painted Girls, Buchanan’s second book, follows three sisters in Paris the late 1800s. Two of the sisters, Marie and Antoinette, danced in the Parisian ballet.
“The story is told in alternating chapters between Marie and her sister,” Buchanan said. “Sisterhood is a big theme in the book.”
Buchanan told book club members that the main character, Marie, is based on Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, a sculpture by Edgar Degas. Buchanan also explained her affinity for historical fiction, in which she can take lesser-known figures and put them at the center of her stories.
“I like creating another time and place,” she said.
Before writing the book, Buchanan noted that she first researched the life of Marie, the dancer depicted by Degas, so she could most accurately detail Marie’s story.
Marie and her sister, Buchanan explained, were born in Paris into a lower class family with parents who were all but absent. Like many girls of that era, they went into Parisian ballet in search of a better life. In her research, Buchanan said she discovered that Parisian ballet girls were often given that better life, but only in exchange for sexual favors they would do for wealthy male patrons.
“It was fascinating to learn about the seedier side of Parisian ballet,” she said.
Buchanan also told the book club how she came up with the idea for The Painted Girls.
“I was quite serious about dance all throughout high school,” she said, adding that Degas’ works hung on the walls of the studio where she would practice. “I grew up being quite familiar with Degas’ ballet girls and I think I felt a real kinship with them.”
Buchanan said it wasn’t until she came across a BBC documentary on Degas that the real seed for the book was planted.
She said one of the aspects that fascinated her most was the idea at the time that people with certain facial features, such as a sloping forehead or low cheekbones, were suspected to have criminal inclinations. Those features, she said, can be seen in Little Dancer Aged Fourteen as well as many of Degas’ other works.
“You can sort of see these features that were linked with criminality,” she said. “I love that, when I find historical details and incorporate them into my work.”
In the book, Buchanan said, Marie has those features and is preoccupied with the idea of being destined for depravity.
“I thought she had a beautiful piece of writing,” critiqued book club member Susan Moyer. “I like the message that it had, because the sisters went through so much hardship together.”
Buchanan, who has three sisters, said the sisterhood theme was not completely intentional.
“I didn’t really plan to have sisterhood as a theme in my book, but it’s a very writer thing to do to write about your preoccupations,” she said.
The Painted Girls has been featured in People, Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines as well as the Washington Post, among many other publications.
“It’ll be a ladies book club favorite,” Thode said. “I’m certain of that.”
Buchanan’s first novel, “The Day the Falls Stood Still,” follows another little-known historical figure, a man who lived near Niagara Falls circa 1915 who had an uncanny ability to predict the weather.