Marie’s museum of wax sculptures provides Parisians with the very latest news on fashion, gossip, and even politics. 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? The year is 1788, and a revolution is about to begin.
Michelle Moran has a gift at creating characters you are instantly drawn into. Is there action, adventure, magic, or mystery in this book? No. It’s about a woman making a living with her wax museum during the time of the French Revolution. And I can't help wanting more of Moran’s central character. She creates strong heroines who are headstrong, possess lots of heart, and aren’t afraid to blaze their own trail. This book had me trapped within its pages from the start.
I went to a wax museum with a friend when we were camping in Wisconsin. I was just entering high school. I remember thinking how creepy the wax figures of people looked. My favorite one was Yoda (you just can’t get him wrong). However, physical likenesses back in Tussaud’s day were usually only done through paintings. For a person to see their wax duplicate standing in front of them for the first time would have been perhaps slightly unnerving but also amazing! It was an exciting piece of entertainment during her time. The setting is a time before photographs, so for most Parisians, a fifteen sou admittance fee brought them as close as they could come to the royal family or to the makers and shakers of public life. Many people had never seen what the royal family or people like Thomas Jefferson looked like. Now, anyone could look into their eyes! For Marie, however, she soon finds her exhibit being dictated by tyrants who expect her to sculpt and display “patriots,” even replicate a guillotine. Some of these patriots cause her family great pain. To depict one person could mean offending another, possibly one who would rouse the mob as happened in one scene.
I felt the prologue was unnecessary because the ending of the story never swept back to the opening moment, so I’m not sure why it was included. Perhaps to reassure the readers that Henri and Marie would find each other again? I feel it could have been left out. It had no bearing to the storyline and no significant to Marie’s life after the revolution.
Throughout the book I kept wondering why is she called Madame Tussaud as she was always referred to as Mademoiselle Marie Grosholtz? She has a love interest whose last name was Charles (and who was in the prologue of the book with her). So how does she get to Tussaud? About mid-way through, I hypothesized that she changed her name after the Revolution to disassociate herself with the events. And then the moment comes near the end of the book when Marie is imprisoned where you find out where the name Tussaud comes from and you have an “aha!” moment. I thought naming the book Madame Tussaud was a great choice by the author because it added a little mystery to the storyline (for someone who knows nothing about this person or the French Revolution besides one book I read on Marie Antoinette, which I did not find very informative at all).
At the end of the novel, Moran lists the historical moments she changed, tweaked, or just plain left out to help keep the storyline fluid. So while not every date for events is accurate, Moran keeps her focus on her main characters. Moran knows how to develop characters through extreme situations and keep them identifiable. I’m not an expert on this time period, so her omissions did not bother me as much as it may others.
At times, Moran would report events more than she would emote. Some horrific things happened during this time. Marie loses friends, family, neighbors, and her freedom. She was forced to create wax molds from recently decapitated heads. And she sees how small interactions (like giving a young boy Marie Antoinette’s discarded handkerchief as a souvenir from her visits with the royal family) have great influence on people’s fates when the tides shift in the country. To say that this is a strong female character is an understatement. She overcomes so much horror and still keeps true to herself, especially in the end as she watches her friend dragged away by soldiers, hears of her later beheading, and subsequently refusing to create a death mask of her as an enemy of the state. She was even forced to a graveyard to sculpt the face of a woman whose coffin had been dug up by her husband and who had been dead for 7 days.
The story provides many startling facts about the revolution. I was particularly shocked that the state leaders created a new calendar and denied anyone the worship of God. Rosary beads were considered unpatriotic. The people even created a new calendar which abolished all religious holidays! There was such fear and hysteria over anything that could have been considered “royalist” in nature. Even people who once had contact with the upper elite were thrown into prison. From what I have seen, many stories on the time focus on the royal family, but horrible acts were also committed to the citizens which Moran respectfully and eloquently portrays.
If I had a complaint, it was that I wanted more of Marie’s life when she was growing up and learning the trade of wax sculpting from her uncle. I was hoping to see her passions develop and really spend time with the character as she creates faces as an adult. What is she thinking about when he places the teeth (pulled from people on the street for money to buy bread), adds the hair, paints the colors of the face, and creates that perfect shade for the glass eyes? This is the passion that she chooses over everything else, including her love for Henri. How does this passion internally help her overcome some of the gruesome tasks she is called upon to perform under the watchful eyes of the “patriots?”
The book includes translations of French words, a map of Paris, and a list of main characters, which all really helped me throughout the book. I think Moran could have expanded the list of characters, but overall, it was extremely helpful for me to keep the players straight in my head. I would have liked a map of Versailles also to illustrate the place Marie traveled to when visiting the king’s sister and the layout of the palace, but Moran’s descriptions were very well penned. I think Moran’s sprinkling in of French words helped draw out the setting of the book. I enjoyed all the details she included such as the fashion men and women wore, the walk through the prison of Bastille, how only royalty was allowed to sit in chairs with arm rests, etc.
There is a vast array of women in this story which I think spans the time period well. One, of course, is Marie Antoinette who does what she can to please her people, but who is criticized no matter what. She has a kind heart who loves her children fiercely and sticks by them to the end. There is sweet Elisabeth, sister to Louis XVI, who is led by faith but frequently is disheartened when adversity strikes. There is Tussaud’s sister-in-law, Isabel, who becomes a good support figure for Marie and her mother. She is sympathetic to others but also helps Marie confront her choices (like staying behind while Henri left). I liked her. Another character is Antoinette’s dressmaker, Rose Bertin. She is a business woman, like Tussaud, but is also a little callous and does not keep close relationships. Marie Tussaud mirrors this, but she has a great capacity to love and empathize and is led not just by her business sense but also in sticking by her family. These two elements are interwoven for her and are what makes it so hard for her to flee when the opportunity is there.
The ending is a bit rushed -- surely Henri had a few pointed questions once Marie landed in England. With the prologue Moran scripted, I figured there would be a little closure on the relationship between Marie and Henri. Did they fall in love again and live happily ever after? What happened to Henri? As a reader, I felt this to be a bit anticlimactic as I wanted to read Marie getting a long-awaited happy ending. However, after a little research, it appears that there was no Henri, though his brother was a real person who was an inventor, scientist, and balloonist. Bummer! I had hoped for a little more closure at the end. Though I very much appreciated the notes Moran left at the end of the book to relay the fates of the major players in her book. I think that helped to satisfy my questions about what life was like after surviving the revolution.
In the end, this was a fascinating, sometimes gruesome, and engaging story. Moran is a wonderful storyteller. Though Cleopatra’s Daughter remains my favorite, this one really built up the unknown role Marie had during this time. She was a woman ahead of her time with great intelligence, business savvy, and perseverance which helped her survive such horrific struggles.
Just released December 2016: "The Forgotten" volume 2 "Heir of the Heretic"
Reviewed and awarded the
2016 Indie Editor's Choice
by the Historical Novel Society.
Long listed for the Historical Novel Society 2017 Indie Award.
Goodreads profile at: https://www.goodreads.com/JElse