Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book Review: Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

Synopsis (from Amazon.com):

The world knows Madame Tussaud as a wax artist extraordinaire . . . but who was this woman who became one of the most famous sculptresses of all time? In these pages, her tumultuous and amazing story comes to life as only Michelle Moran can tell it. The year is 1788, and a revolution is about to begin.

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 √Člisabeth, 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 caf√©s 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?

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 vanished kingdom.

My Review 

4.5 Stars

Leaving the ancient Egyptian world of her previous novels behind, author Michelle Moran takes her readers on a journey through one of the most tumultuous periods in European history - the period encompassing the final months of the reign of French King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror - through the eyes of a woman who lived through it all and survived - the famed wax sculptor, Marie Grosholtz, better known to the world as Madame Tussuad.  

When a visit by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to the wax museum Marie Grosholtz operates with her uncle results in her being hired as tutor to the King's sister, Marie is honoured and excited by the prospects an association with the Royal Family can bring.   This excitement is short-lived, however, when the French Revolution begins to get underway and ties the nobility and the Royal Family become heavily frowned upon.   Despite the presence of revolutionaries in her midst - her uncle often plays host to men such as Robespierre and Desmoulins - Marie is able to carefully balance the world of the revolution with that of the Royal Court, and in so doing is able to develop an appreciation for both the causes of the revolution and the way it is viewed by the Royal Family.  She also comes to realize that the ideals and beliefs behind the revolutionary fervour are not all they seem, and that the revolutionaries will play fast and loose with the truth in order to advance their cause.    
While I enjoyed learning about Marie's experiences, what truly brought this novel alive for me were the secondary and peripheral characters - men such as the Marquis de Lafayette, Robespierre, Marat, Danton and Desmoulins.   Moran's characterization of each of these men, and her descriptions of their beliefs and actions, are what made the events of French Revolution and the Terror come to life.   In addition, although they weren't featured often, I thought the author did an excellent job with the characterizations of King Louis and Marie Antoinette.   She shows that, contrary to revolutionary opinion, they were not bad people out to trample the lower classes.   Instead, I felt she painted them as sympathetic figures whose greatest fault was their ignorance of the severity of the situation in Paris, an ignorance for which they cannot really be blamed given their advisors seemed to keep much from them.  

Overall I found much to like about this novel - great characterizations, wonderful historical details and a fast-moving, engaging plot.   I thought the first half of the novel moved along well, but it was the second half, when the French Revolution was well underway, that made this such a fantastic read for me, one I didn't want to put down until I finished.  

I definitely recommend this novel to any fan of the historical fiction genre.