Feb 14, 2011

Book Review: Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution by Michelle Moran
Hardcover, 464 pages
February 15th 2011
Crown Publishing Group
ISBN-13 9780307588654
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating:Four and a Half Huge Stars


In this deft historical novel, Madame Tussaud (1761-1850) escapes the pages of trivia quizzes to become a real person far more arresting than even her waxwork sculptures. Who among us knew, for instance, that she moved freely through the royal court of Louis XVI, only to become a prisoner of the Reign of Terror? Her head was shaven for guillotining, but she escaped execution, though she was forced to make death masks for prominent victims. Novelist Michelle Moran covers this breathtaking period without losing the thread of its subject's singular story

Readers have many ways to hear of the atrocities of the French Revolution, but Michelle Moran's is one that should not be overlooked as among the best. Through the eyes of Marie Grosholz, the famous sculptress known later as Madame Tussaud, we become witnesses to the crimes of the anarchists who stylized themselves as Revolutionaries. With what first begins as a documentary view of the fall of the monarchy under Louis XVI, Madame Tussaud evolves into a passionate first-hand look into the horrors and the fears that the French people faced during the Revolution.

The novel begins as a sedate look at the salon of wax figures that Marie is running with her Uncle Curtius, which is a pleasant trade that allows her mother and she to thrive. Her greatest ambition is to be noticed by Queen Marie Antoinette, and is not until much later that she realizes that this one ambition for greatness could mean the guillotine for her family. Marie is extremely talented in portraying the wax sculptures with lifelike accuracy, and the salon does become recognized throughout France especially after the Royal family visit. With a devastating turn of events, the revolutionaries also visit the salon and her uncle, who becomes one of Robespierre's National Guard. The politics of the Third Estate and the plight of the poorest people are well developed in the story, and it is with a crescendo of suspense and fear that we read on as King Louis's head is brought to the salon's doorstep.. with several other horrors beforehand that pulls you into this story of a remarkable time and a woman who showed great fortitude and resilience during those times of extreme crisis.

There are many notables in the novel, from the royal family to the revolutionaries, and then there are those members of Marie's small circle that help bring a stunning clarity to the tenuous position Marie found herself in every day during the Revolution. Not knowing what was the right thing to say at any given moment (for the king or for the people?) as Marie was forced to put aside her morals and sense of right and wrong, in fear of those leaders who were making names for themselves as writers of political papers that brought chaos to the kingdom and the monarchy. No one was safe, innocent women and children were slaughtered just as the King and Queen were.

Although the start of the novel felt a bit rushed to document the events of France that brought the monarchy to its knees, the climatic story redeemed itself as this reader became completely engrossed in the travails of Madame Tussaud and her friends. I had little knowledge of the devastation the Revolutionaries caused for the entire country, and was stunned at the sanction of murder that was committed in the name of freedom. The seemingly simple title of French Revolution brings to me now a new found respect for those that lived, died or endured during the Revolution, such as young Marie Grosholz, and it is only through the magnificent storytelling via Michelle Moran from which I have achieved this. Brava to Michelle Moran for another job well done for a spectacular (heartwrenching and nerve wracking!) piece of work. P.S. The last book I read took over a week, this took two days.