"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Monday, June 6, 2011

Madame Tussaud

Moran, Michelle. Madame Tussaud. New York: Crown Publishers, 2011. 448 pages.

"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....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?  Spanning five years, from the budding revolution to the Reign of Terror, Madame Tussaud brings us into the world of an incredible heroine whose talent for wax modeling saved her life and preserved the faces of a vanquished kingdom." (description from the book dust jacket)

Overall rating: **** (four stars)

  • Main Character. Marie Grosholtz (later Tussaud) was a strong, single career woman back before such a thing really existed. Her story is compelling and provides and excellent platform for a book about the horrible tragedy that was the French Revolution.
  • Other Historical Figures. Some of the most fascinating historical developments in the book relate to the more ancillary characters, such as Robespierre or Marat.  We see the change in Robespierre from talkative commoner at a political salon to the architect of the Reign of Terror.  And seeing Marat through Marie's eyes, it is less than sad when he is stabbed in his bath.  
  • French Culture. The presentation of the importance of the newspapers and Marie's Salon as venues for new is a fascinating insight into life very much before the information age.
  • Historical Liberties. It is a historical novel and, as such, the writer has altered some bits of history in the narrative to make for a better story (which she addresses very well in her historical note at the end).
  • Character Development. There are a few times near the beginning of the book when a character has a change of heart or does something without what seems like adequate motivation.  These moments are rare and fade out, so they do not detract too much.
Michelle Moran has painted a compelling, disturbing picture of life in Paris during the French Revolution.  The novel is a study in contrasts: the common people versus the monarchy, principals versus survival, order versus chaos.  Throughout the novel, Marie makes many difficult choices to both promote her career and, eventually, simply survive the Reign of Terror.  Moran's writing is rich and evocative, and as Marie descends into the horrors of the Terror, the reader see both her initial revulsion and the sort of numb acceptance that follows.

The choice of Marie's story gives Moran a great deal of freedom in portraying different aspects of France during the Revolution.  We get to see many of the principal leaders of the Revolution before it begins, before they've been corrupted by power.  We also get to see changes in how the public opinion changes toward characters who essentially remain the sane.  The Marquis de Lafayette stays the same man of action and principle, but when his principles no longer align with the leaders of the revolution, the change in public opinion is swift and vicious.  In the end, that is the greatest strength of this novel, even if it stretches historical fact.  Through Marie, the reader gets to see a little bit of everything and meet people who play almost every possible role in the Revolution, without abandoning the human aspect that makes the story relatable and real for the reader.  I would recommend this book for anyone who is unfamiliar with the Revolution and who is new to historical fiction.

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