Read by Cassandra Campbell, Julia Whelan, and Danny Campbell
Length: 12 hours 15 minutes
When Antoinette and Marie van Goethem find themselves in dire straits after the death of their father, they cannot look to their mother for assistance, for she is caught at the bottom of the absinthe bottle. It’s up to the girls to provide for the household and they initially find work at the ballet. But the work there is hard and long, and though one has success, the other sets her sights on other occupations. When Marie finds herself being coddled by Edgar Degas, she agrees to model for him, eventually becoming the model for his statue Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. Soon Marie finds herself a wealthier patron and becomes aware of some of the darker and seedier sides of the ballet. Meanwhile, the headstrong Antoinette finds love and danger when she begins to shun the ballet and head off with Émile Abadie, a man who may or may not be a murderer. But Antoinette will not believe this of her Émile and comes to form strong opinions and objections when she is cautioned about him. Marie, however, is bound to the stage and to the patron who feels as though she is his personal plaything. Will Antoinette and Marie ever truly be free to live as girls ought and not as their horrible past has dictated? With grace and spirit, Cathy Marie Buchanan captures all the drama and vices that 1878 Paris is so richly steeped in and brings her characters into sharp relief among the Paris of the past.
When I read all the rave reviews for this book, I knew that I had to listen to it, and the experience was just right. Narrated by a cast of three, the book is primarily narrated by Cassandra Campbell, who voices Marie. Other chapters are read by Julia Whelan, voicing Antoinette, and Danny Campbell, who voices the interludes. Each voice had perfect French pronunciation and each seemed to embody the character that they were playing. Campbell’s voice (Marie) took on a dejected and sad quality, full of angst and wonderment at her supposed success, while Whelan (Antoinette) was high-strung and spirited, full of contempt at times yet readily sympathetic when it came to her sister. Campbell only played a small part and his vocal style was more authoritarian and removed. Of the three, he was my least favorite.
Though there are only two girls focused on in the tale, in reality there are three, for at home with their drunken mother is little Charlotte, only eight. It’s not her tale that’s explored, but often I found myself thinking about her and what life was like for her. The girls’ mother was a professional wheedler and often sent her daughters to do what she should have done herself, which is to work and take care of the family. Most of the time she was abusive and drunken, and would greedily take all the girls had earned to buy her beloved absinthe. In her abuse of power, the girls lay defenseless, and they became the fodder for all sorts of base proclivities.
When Maire begins to model for Degas, she thinks it’s an honor that he bestows on her, but in reality, he’s capturing her formidable brow and shrunken chin and proclaiming her, without words, inferior. He paints her and sculpts her, noting that her skull is that of one with a criminal mind, not the beautiful ballerina that she sees herself to be. But she soon finds another man to become her patron, and it’s he who takes the innocence that Marie has already found shaken and tramples it to the dust. She will become a ballerina, yes, but at what cost? For Marie is a good and gentle girl, but the darkness that others see in her is only a reflection of their own souls.
Antionette finds ballet too demanding and boring, and soon she is being swayed under the ministrations of Émile Abadie, a young man who seems to be a dandy but in reality is a dangerous fraud. He plays with Antoinette's heart and gladly gives her the love she gets from nowhere else, but in his arms Antoinette feels free. It’s only when she can deny no longer that he is corrupt that her heart breaks, and she freely wears her badge of pain. It’s not her struggle to love Émile, but to survive with her sisters. Though she’s headstrong and brash, she will come to find salvation in the things that once tore her apart.
I liked this audiobook, but didn’t love it. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more in print. Though it was compelling and forceful, it left me wanting, and I hated the fact that Antoinette and Marie were so maligned throughout the story. I think readers who like historical fiction and particularly fiction about Paris or ballet would love it, but for me, the story that was narrated perfectly failed to move me as I expected it to.