Title: Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution
Author: Michelle Moran
No. of Pages: 448
Genre: Historical Fiction
“Smart and ambitious, Marie Tussaud has learned the secrets of wax sculpting by working alongside her uncle in their celebrated wax museum, the Salon de Cire. From her popular model of the American ambassador, Thomas Jefferson, to her tableau of the royal family at dinner, Marie’s museum provides Parisians with the very latest news on fashion, gossip, and even politics. Her customers hail from every walk of life, yet her greatest dream is to attract the attention of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI; their stamp of approval on her work could catapult her and her museum to the fame and riches she desires. After months of anticipation, Marie learns that the royal family is willing to come and see their likenesses. When they finally arrive, the king’s sister is so impressed that she requests Marie’s presence at Versailles as a royal tutor in wax sculpting. It is a request Marie knows she cannot refuse—even if it means time away from her beloved Salon and her increasingly dear friend, Henri Charles.
As Marie gets to know her pupil, Princesse Élisabeth, she also becomes acquainted with the king and queen, who introduce her to the glamorous life at court. From lavish parties with more delicacies than she’s ever seen to rooms filled with candles lit only once before being discarded, Marie steps into a world entirely different from her home on the Boulevard du Temple, where people are selling their teeth in order to put food on the table.
Meanwhile, many resent the vast separation between rich and poor. In salons and cafés across Paris, people like Camille Desmoulins, Jean-Paul Marat, and Maximilien Robespierre are lashing out against the monarchy. Soon, there’s whispered talk of revolution. . . . Will Marie be able to hold on to both the love of her life and her friendship with the royal family as France approaches civil war? And more important, will she be able to fulfill the demands of powerful revolutionaries who ask that she make the death masks of beheaded aristocrats, some of whom she knows?”
Thoughts: Michelle Moran is known for her ability to bring to back to life famous women who were each afforded a surprising level of power and/or fame among their contemporaries. Ms. Moran’s impeccable research allows the reader to step back in time to gain a detailed perspective of the challenges faced by her chosen heroine. In her latest novel Ms. Moran successfully branches away from Egypt and to the French Revolution and the woman who would become famous as Madame Tussaud.
The story takes place well after Marie Grosholz and her “uncle”/guardian Philippe Curtius gained fame throughout Paris as the purveyors of skilled wax models but before the civil unrest behind the Revolution broke out into bloodshed. Marie is not a typical historical fiction heroine; she is not coming of age or waiting for her family to find her a husband. Well into her late twenties, Marie retains the greatest voice when it comes to the family business. She makes a large majority of the business decisions, and it is her wishes that are brought to life when it comes to the displays themselves. She is also surprisingly cutthroat and dispassionate; she will do anything to ensure that the business remains open and popular with the greater population, no matter where her true allegiances lie. Against the backdrop of an increasingly bloodthirsty crown, Marie must balance her love of the King’s sister and the royal family with that of her business with that of her personal happiness. It is a balancing act with which most modern women are familiar, but the stakes are not quite as high these days as they were in France during the late 1780s/1790s.
Madame Tussaud shines with its historical depictions of royal life framed against the backdrop of the real-life struggles of the non-nobility. Ms. Moran showcases the court of Louis XIV in all its naivety, inaction, glory and grotesqueness. Among the breathtaking descriptions of Versailles, Ms. Moran adds the squalid descriptions of overcrowded rooms, a lack of personal hygiene, and general lack of understanding behind the commoner’s true demands. The royals’ inability to understand the true state of desperation and the Third Estate’s increasing bitterness towards the royal family is as shocking as it is depressing. Even worse are the absolutely brutal depictions of the Revolution itself. The fear of being named as a royal sympathizer, the repugnant glee from the mobs, the disgusting nature of the guillotine all combine to create a level of terror that few other eras can match. Ms. Moran captures this terror in a way that is breathtaking, while leaving the reader feeling guilty about being thankful s/he was not alive during the Reign of Terror.
The one weakness of Madame Tussaud is Marie herself. Her balancing act between the two sides of the Revolution, as well as her “business first” mindset, make her fairly unlikable. For someone who is not so young, she makes some ill-informed decisions which, even though they add drama to an already exciting story, do not align with the character Ms. Moran carefully crafts for readers. These poor decisions seem forced and specifically designed to draw out the story, when the underlying historical drama provides enough excitement and tension.
Madame Tussaud, much like the title, is a tale of two stories. There is Madame Tussaud, the devoted businesswoman who lives for her wax models and displays. Then there is Marie Grosholz, a woman trying to maintain some level of normalcy in a world that has gone mad. Ms. Moran’s depiction of the mismanagement leading up to the Revolution and the Reign of Terror remains one of the more brutal versions ever experienced while providing the story with its heart and soul. Marie may not be the most sympathetic of heroines, but no reader can share her experiences without developing a profound sense of gratitude at distance between the historical events described and today. Ms. Moran’s ability to remove that perception of distance is a testament to her abilities as a writer and to her research capabilities. If all of her books are as thoroughly and as realistic as Madame Tussaud, I cannot wait to read more of her work.
Acknowledgements: Mine. All mine.