THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
“Dancing for Degas’’

Strong woman, historical setting

By Nancy Harris
November 3, 2011

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Historical fiction allows us to see beyond the circumstances of our own era and distinguish which aspects of the human condition are eternal and which are ephemeral.

Tara Coughlin, a 28-year-old resident of Braintree, is an avid reader of historical fiction, when she isn’t busy chasing after her determined 18-month-old daughter.

As an artist who has always followed a less traditional path, Coughlin says, she finds herself particularly drawn to books that have a strong female protagonist and that allow her to glimpse the lives of women in different eras.

One book she recently enjoyed, “Dancing for Degas,’’ by Kathryn Wagner, combines her passion for art and her interest in earlier eras.

“While ‘Dancing for Degas’ is a fictional portrayal of a young ballerina who inspires Edgar Degas to paint,’’ Coughlin said, “it is also a realistic account of the Paris Opera Ballet at the turn of the 20th century, and the choices women were forced to make in the lower echelons of Parisian society.’’

Wagner’s debut novel, published last year by Bantam, follows the life of an adolescent girl, Alexandrie, who is ambitious in her own right but is forced to carry the burden of securing her family’s financial future.

When her older brother marries a girl who is even poorer than Alexandrie’s family, her mother becomes consumed with attempting to transform her awkward, frizzy-haired daughter into a prima ballerina.

With visions of a life far away from their shabby, provincial farm, and a future different from her mother’s desperate plight, Alexandrie steps into the competitive world of ballet.

After years of hard work, Alexandrie is accepted to the Paris Opera Ballet, which is an integral part of the city’s cultural life. Once there, she is forced to train harder than ever before and accept that she is merely the backdrop for the lead ballerina, Cornelie.

Alexandrie quickly learns to navigate the competition, jealousy, and regimentation that rule the life of beginning ballerinas. But she is totally unprepared to discover that wealthy male patrons of the ballet, or abonnés, are given unlimited backstage access so that they may choose ballerinas for “post-performances’’ back in their bedrooms.

Even more shocking to Alexandrie is that the company’s ballerinas vie to become a lifetime mistress to a successful and wealthy man.

Alexandrie now believes that all along her own mother intended for her to capture the attentions of the highest male bidder, thus ensuring Alexandrie’s ability to send money back home.

But her mother’s plans are soon derailed when Alexandrie begins to fall in love with a moody young painter, who regularly sits backstage attempting to capture the movement and athleticism of the dancers.

As Alexandrie is drawn deeper into the Parisian art world and swept up by the elegant parties and exhibitions of men like Cezanne, Monet, and Pissaro, she is also swept away by her feelings for the young artist Degas.

The question remains whether she will risk all that she has attained, her dream of becoming the ballet’s star dancer, and financial security for herself and family. Faced with difficult decisions, Alexandrie is for the first time finally on her own.

The novel “is really a fascinating tale of one woman’s struggle to balance family, duty, morals, and the personal dream,’’ Coughlin says. “ ‘Dancing for Degas’ shows us that these are really enduring dilemmas.’’

In terms of historical accuracy, the book offers a fine rendering of life on and offstage of the Paris ballet at the time. But while it’s true that the Paris ballet attracted young girls from extremely poor and working-class families, and that wealthy male patrons had unusual access to the dancers, it remains questionable whether the ballet really functioned as a kind of brothel.

But any historical embellishment does little to dampen Coughlin’s enthusiasm for “Dancing for Degas.’’

“For me’’ she said, “the novel still highlights the historical truth that in turn-of-the-century Paris, women really had limited options in a male-dominated world.

“Like all good historical fiction,’’ Coughlin said, “ ‘Dancing for Degas’ gives us a small sliver of reality during a different era, and its value is that it leaves the reader wanting to learn more about the subject.’’

For those readers who want to learn more, there is a wonderful exhibition, titled “Degas and the Nude,’’ open through Feb. 5 at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

And two other good books about women and painting are “The Passion of Artemisia’’ and “Girl in Hyacinth Blue,’’ both by Susan Vreeland.

Nancy Harris can be reached at dr.nancy23@gmail.com.

Kathryn Wagner


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