The story follows the van Goethem sisters, a trio of young girls struggling to survive after the death of their father and with the drunken laziness of their laundress mother, who is addicted to absinthe.
Antoinette, the eldest, is already working as an extra at Paris’s grand opera house. Once their father dies, it is time for the two younger sisters, Marie and Charlotte to also work at the Paris Opera, by joining the school for ballet.
Although at age 11, Marie is considerably older than the starting ballerinas, she tries out anyway. “Petit rats,” children of the Parisian ballet, are paid 70 francs a month and the family is three months behind in paying the rent.
This tragic beginning is set in 1878 and Buchanan follows the sisters, going back and forth between Marie and Antoinette’s perspectives until 1881.
The novel has its high points, like Marie’s little victories of being accepted into the ballet and then being quickly moved into the class with girls her own age.
The plot also has its lows, like Antoinette’s struggle between being there for her sisters and being with her sweetheart.
The sisters are not the only characters with historical inspiration.
When reading Antoinette’s passionate and often sarcastic narratives, we are introduced to Émile Abadie, her future sweetheart and a Parisian murderer.
It was here that I struggled with Antoinette, forgiving her for falling for the “bad boy” at first. That is, until it became clear that Abadie is much more than the average no-good boyfriend.
When Antoinette finds out Abadie is accused of murder, I wanted very badly to stay on her side and believe with her that it wasn’t true.
It is in the advanced class where Marie meets Edgar Degas, the famous painter. The artist’s world famous sculpture, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” is a model of the real-life Marie van Goethem.
I have always been a fan of Degas’s work, so reading a book about the subjects of some of his works — albeit a fictionalized one — was as pleasant an experience as looking at his paintings.
Degas was part of the impressionist movement in art, where capturing moments was more important than getting every single detail just right.
Buchanan’s book is a very similar idea put into literature. Instead of focusing on getting every historical detail just right, she captures the feel of the time.
A good example of this is that there is no evidence to tie the sister to Abadie.
But the way Buchanan captures Antoinette’s inner battle between caring for her sisters and falling for Abadie, the reader feels every loving moment and every disappointment with her.
Buchanan’s triumph is creating believable characters. Her characters make bad choices, they heal, they love, and they occasionally hate themselves for their choices.
Reading this book I was willing to follow those characters through it all, to see them succeed in the end.
Through their struggles and their pain, Buchanan creates an engaging tale of three sisters. Like all sisters, they sometimes don’t see eye-to-eye, and may not even like each other.
In the end, this story is one of love and strength, and how the sisters saved one another.