Friday, February 15, 2019

Literary Sewing Circle: Book Talk

Today's the day for some serious book talk! How are you doing with the book? Have you started it yet? Finished it? Do you have any reactions you'd like to share? 

Here are a few questions to ponder today and for the next while -- whether you have begun reading, or you've only read blurbs & our interview so far and still have something to say, join in! Although there might be a few spoilers in the questions and discussion below so if you haven't got too far yet you might want to come back to this post.

I'll add some of my own thoughts and you can reply to them or add your own impressions. If you want to hear other takes on a part of the book that you are curious about, leave your own questions in the comments, too. I hope you are all enjoying it so far!

1. What was the first thing that drew you to this book? Was it the setting? The historical context? Ballet?

I first read this book because I'd read the author's first novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, and enjoyed it. Plus the idea of Degas and art and ballet and sisters all rolled together for me into a tempting package, even if I don't read a lot of historical fiction regularly. And there is somehow always that attraction to stories of Paris.

2. Do you enjoy the narrative switching between Antoinette and Marie? Do you prefer one over the other?

I really liked how the narrative weaves different perspectives together. I liked the gritty urgency of Antoinette's chapters, but I loved Marie's take on things, her softness and her uncertainty about life. Maybe because she is the middle sister, I felt like I could understand her approach to life with a strong older sister and a beautiful adored younger sister -- she has to find her own place somehow. Obviously I felt a kindred middle sister connection!

3. What do you think of the abundance of female relationships in this book -- from sisters to mother-daughter to frenemies or fellow dancers, there are a lot of female interactions -- do you think they capture life realistically? 

I loved the way that female experience was primary in all ways in this book. From the sisters themselves to their mother's sad life and other laundresses she worked with; to the other, competitive ballet dancers or Antoinette's female companions who always have their eye on the same men; to Marie and Antoinette's own future families -- all of these were drawn with strength. I was glad to see their complexity -- the women are all fully realized people, not all good and not all bad.

4. Did any part of the story surprise or shock you? Were you aware of what life was like for young ballet dancers in this era before reading this? 

I was in a general sense, mostly from reading classics like Jane Eyre & the like. But I felt that this book really dug into the visceral experience of these girls, and made it feel contemporary and very realistic. Their options, or lack of them, were clearly shown, and the fight for abonnés makes a lot of sense when it's a struggle for survival.

As for shocking, Emile's character and his crimes were queasy-making for me. I skimmed over some of the descriptions of he and his friends doing bad things -- I don't read dark mystery novels because I can't take the gore, and I found that some of this story had the same feel!

5. What do you think of Degas' role in the story? In his final exhibition of Marie's statue alongside a criminal's sketch is he betraying her or saying something else altogether? 

Personally, I thought he was cruelly oblivious in the way he presented his statue. After all the time he spent with Marie in the book, and the ways in which, according to her perceptions, they'd connected in some way, to expose her to mockery and slanderous character judgements by thoughtlessly (I hope) suggesting that her physiognomy was also criminal was cruel. But perhaps that was inevitable considering the view of the petites rats at that time, and because of Marie's conviction of her own ugliness according to contemporary ideals of beauty.

6. Did Antoinette's obsession with Emile ring true for you? What did you think of Antoinette's whole social circle and Emile in particular? 

He was just so awful from the beginning, and I could understand though not approve of Antoinette's fixation on him. I thought for sure she'd see through him sooner, considering her strong personality and her connection to her family and sisters that he tried to sever. All the men in the group, and many of the other women were clearly out to get what they could for themselves, no matter who got in the way. Antoinette pretended to fit in but I never felt she had the hardness to really be part of that circle.

7. Was Marie justified in destroying evidence showing Emile's innocence of a second murder? Why do you think she did it? 

One word: yes! He was so despicable that I'd have done the same. Now, Marie didn't have the context and evidence that the reader does, but still. Do it Marie!

8. Is there anything specific  in the book that has sparked an idea for a project yet? Are you mulling over any ideas?

I am feeling inspired by the setting right now -- there are a couple of dresses by French designers, even some of our sponsors, that are calling to me. And I'm also thinking about potential "French feeling" fabric in my stash that I could use. But I'm also thinking about the ballet as reflecting a feeling of lightness and flowiness in fashion, and how to interpret that into something I might wear -- a summer dress, from rayon challis perhaps... clearly I still haven't decided on my final project!

Photo by Thomas William on Unsplash


  1. Degas and his ballerinas in various forms are some of my absolute favorites. I’ve watched the exhibit at the Norton Simon for many years, including what must have been a special expanded exhibit for a short time! So, anyway. With also taking ballet as late as my high school years for fun and fitness, ballet is a favorite. I’m about a quarter of the way through the book so far. It’s an eye opener! I love historical fiction. As far as the sewing aspect, I’m planning on using one of my Make Nine choices...a Gertie sundress. And, modify it slightly to resemble the 14 year old ballerina, yet still be wearable. That’s my goal!

    1. Somehow I didn't realize you'd done ballet for so long. That's really interesting! I like your idea of combining a Make Nine project with this one. If I had made a Make Nine list I might do the same ;)

      I'm glad you're enjoying the book -- historical fiction is not always my first choice but I really liked this one and wanted to share it. There is so much inspiration in it!

  2. Having not long received the book, I am only really beginning to read. But, in just the first few pages the item of clothing that struck me was the mother's apron, with pockets (good for hiding a 'small bottle of green liquid'??), and I thought straight off, that this could be very timely for a good apron. (Not because I want to hide anything in the pocket!). I have for a long time wanted to make the Purl Solo crossover back apron, a Japanese style, and this is an ideal opportunity. I have some indigo dyed cotton which is a bit soft to handle, but with a little starch would serve the purpose.

    I have a question for those who have a historical knowledge of ballet; was it regarded in other countries as it was in France? Was it the young girls, of poor backgrounds, who were sought for one reason or another for ballet? I did not appreciate that the elegant culture of Ballet appears to have such a very dubious beginning.

    I will contribute more appropriately over the coming week as I get into the story.

    1. Good eye for the apron -- it does play a big role as a symbol of work, and of domesticity as well. And just in itself, that crossbody apron design is lovely.

      Not being a ballet expert, I'm not sure that it was always high art, or if there was that crossover into more of an 'entertainment'. I do know that in classics like Jane Eyre, "opera dancers" are little more than expensive call girls, and I believe that the idea of women on the stage in any capacity always had that inference added. Not sure when that changed.

  3. Hi Melanie! I read this post a little too early on in my reading -- murder??? What??? lol. Must catch up.
    I'm enjoying the book so far, and it's quite interesting how the author has incorporated both Edgar Degas *and* Emile Zola as historical figures in the story.
    Wondering if others are finding Marie's dependence on Antoinette rather selfish? I'm not sure it's supposed to come off that way or not.
    I love Sara's idea of the apron. I myself would like to sew Colette's Elmira Ballet top (, mainly because it's been on my list of things to sew for a while now. But my schedule isn't going to allow me to get that done in time, so I have something else up my sleeve. It has a more tenuous connection to the book but I have to take what I can get at the moment!
    Looking forward to seeing the makes. And again, thank you for hosting this. I LOVE combining literature and sewing.

    1. Whoops, spoilers!! I hope you are enjoying the read, nevertheless :)

      And I'm very intrigued by what you are planning to make that fits in with your schedule.

  4. What was the first thing that drew you to this book? Was it the setting? The historical context? Ballet?
    Once again this was not a book I would have picked up myself. But that is the beauty of book clubs – it makes you look further afield and diversify. And yet, when I read the back cover, there are so many interesting concepts described that it makes me realise I need to consider more books out of my norm.
    Descriptions such as 'have you ever looked at a piece of art and wondered what the artist was thinking...., who were the subjects......, compelling characters...., the poignant story of sisters struggling to stay together.., etc, all make for an interesting read.

    Do you enjoy the narrative switching between Antionette and Marie? Do you prefer one over the other?
    I love the narrative switching! Think of any event and the characters involved will all see something different in what is happening. This is the rich tapestry of life. We are all so complicated with different perspectives, different ideas, different values. Even the fact that Marie could read and Antoinette could not. That was a big factor in how they would both view the same incident. Very much like today – education gives people such broader backgrounds on which to base decisions and view points. Towards the end when Antoinette was trying to find Marie, and the chapters were very short it was so exciting. I was standing in an airport queue waiting to board and I could not put the book down, so I walked still reading!

    What do you think of the abundance of female relationships in this book – from sisters to mother-daughter to frenemies or fellow dancers, there are lots of female interactions – do you think they capture life realistically?
    Is it because I am female and so have a 'female' viewpoint, but I do wonder if females have a greater depth of complications with their relationships, whether it be with females or other. Would a book based around male relationships have had so many twists and turns and possibilities? Would there have been so many unique but in-depth interactions? Do you know of such a book? That would be interesting.

  5. Did any part of the story surprise or shock you? Were you aware of what life was like for young ballet dancers in this era before reading this?
    One thing that really surprised me is that so much in life has not changed between 1870 and 2019. Critics and media express a personal view, often with no real educational or empiric expertise or background in a particular area, and yet they hold so much power. There seems to be no boundaries as to how cruel or unwarranted their comments are. And the effect that this can have on an individual, a family, a community can be far reaching and detrimental. I find this incredibly sad. Nothing has changed. And how does this happen? Media are so much to blame, then as now. Media love a 'good' story, one with drama, shaming regardless of the truth. And the masses believe and just follow along.
    The reviews of the statuette were not about Degas' quality of sculpture, instead the reviews focussed on a 14 year old dancer, a child, and without knowing anything about her they tore her apart, her reputation, her looks and her profession. It took a baker's son who had the strength to disregard but to see her as she really was, knowing her hardships and her character to turn all of this around for her. But it was almost too late.

    Did Antoinette's obsession with Emile ring true for you? What did you think of Antoinette's whole social circle and Emile in particular?
    Yes it did, in that environment, at that time. I think Antoinette craved love. It did not come from her mother. And although there was love between her and her sisters, they were very dependent on her. She mistakenly believed Emile's attentions to her was a sort of love, although bit by bit that deception was revealed.

    Was Marie justified in destroying evidence showing Emile's innocence of a second murder? Why do you think she did it?
    Is it 'right' for any person to tamper with evidence? Governments do it, people in power do it, criminals do it. It is not 'right'. But is she justified..... yes. She so much wanted to protect Antoinette from what she could see as a disaster, and no future for her sister. And she knew that would happen. Her love for her sister was so powerful that this was a risk she would take.

    I could talk about this book for ages ….. it has left me thinking (and thinking.....).

    1. I love all the thoughts you're sharing on this read, and am so glad that it caught you and kept you reading!

      I was struck by your comment about how the critics focused more on the character of the model and slandering her rather than looking at the artwork as its own thing in and of itself. That still happens, doesn't it, looking for flaws in the artist and/or model rather than evaluating the work itself? Sometimes I do think it can be justified to look at the author's intention and the personality/behaviour behind a piece, but not always, and attacking an innocent model is really not on.

  6. Hi Melanie, This was my first foray into the Literary Sewing Circle and I loved it. When the National Gallery of Canada first opened (I don't know how many years ago), my mom and I went to Ottawa for the weekend. I saw the statue that is referenced so many times in the book, the paintings of the laundresses and Degas's dancers. To be able to attach a story to them, albeit a fictional one, was lovely. It's remarkable when you consider the beauty (whether it be dance or art) that came from such hardship. Loved the book. As for inspired sewing, I'm not quite there yet. Thank you for recommending the book.

    1. What a wonderful story! I wish I'd been able to see the statue in real life as well. I'm glad you have that connection while reading this story, and glad that you liked it. I hope you arrive at a project soon :)


Share your comments, ideas or suggestions here -- I am always interested in hearing from readers. It's nice to have a conversation!