Written by Carolyn Meyer
Reviewed by Andi
I was initially attracted to Carolyn Meyer's Marie, Dancing for its seeming likeness to a favorite of mine, Tracy Chevalier's historical art novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring. Meyer's novel adheres to a similar premise, a fictionalized account of the life of a famous subject. In this case, the subject is Marie van Goethem and the artist is Edgar Degas.
Where this book differs wildly from Chevalier's is in the spirit of the protagonist. Marie is a devoted daughter and sister despite her mother's absinthe addiction and in the face of her elder sister's leanings toward flirtation and sexual promiscuity. Marie takes it upon herself to continually provide for the family while caring for her younger sister, attempting to foster a romance, succeed as a ballet dancer and still maintain a little self respect.
Marie is a spirited, hellcat of a character when she needs to be. She poses for the enigmatic Degas and befriends Mary Cassatt. She thrives as a dancer and becomes the subject of a controversial and widely respected work of art. And, above all, she maintains her integrity amidst overwhelming adversity. But all is not perfect, for Marie's life is not all happiness and light. There is a good deal of realistic grit in Meyer's tale, and it only serves to strengthen the story and give Marie's life a glaze of the believable.
Meyer wraps this wonderful story in the cloak of 19th century Paris and peppers her novel with French phrases and subtle detail -- the decoration on clothing, the movement of dancers, and the cold in a tiny, dirty flat. The novel is meticulously researched and stunningly written, and, at the end of the day, I would choose its spirited, spunky leading lady over Chevalier's wallflower.