Monday, 7 December 2015

Review: Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

Date Finished: 27/11/2015
2011 • 575 pages • Rating ★★★

Paris 1788. France is on the brink of revolution and will soon become emerged in one of the bloodiest periods in history. At the centre of the novel’s events is Marie Grosholtz, a talented wax artist whom the world later knows as Madame Tussaud. Marie sculpts numerous famous figures, from the doomed Marie Antoinette to key revolutionary figures like Maximillian Robespierre, since it is her art which acts as the medium for spreading news across Paris.

Despite Madame Tussaud being probably one of the most famous and instantly recognisable figures in history, I have to confess that prior to reading this novel, I knew very little about her. Granted, this is a work of fiction, but I knew before I read the end historical note that Michelle Moran had done a brilliant job on her research. Being set in the midst of revolutionary France, the political and historical facts were needed to give the plot its authenticity, yet it wasn’t bombarding. There are just enough historical facts to keep the story informative without it weighing the plot down, and I have to say, I was actually quite surprised at how present Madame Tussaud was in the revolution. Her uncanny ability to sculpt and carve the famous faces of Paris led her employment in making the death masks of those who had fallen victim to the guillotine, including the infamous and ill-fated Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Madame Tussaud's feelings towards the revolution are actually unknown according to Michelle Moran's historical note, but in the story she sympathises with the royals and continues her work at the order of the revolutionaries in order to stay alive.

Marie is the narrator of the story and it follows her life in her uncle’s salon on the Boulevard du Temple. Marie and her family make their living by sculpting the famous figures of the time and displaying them to the public. Marie is so good in fact that the King and Queen even pop by for a visit and she is later employed as an artistic tutor to the King’s sister, Madame Elisabeth. Of course this being a novel set during the French Revolution, as a reader you do find yourself patiently waiting for everything to fall apart and from the very beginning you’re teased with little snippets of information that lead to the fall of the Ancient Regime. Marie even has a close shave with the guillotine herself (no pun intended) and it’s actually really interesting to read about how frightening and barbaric the Reign of Terror actually was.

I think it’s always tricky for authors to write a novel set during an infamous period since the reader will have at least some idea of what is going to happen before it actually takes place. But I think that’s why I enjoyed the story because it is centred on a woman in the midst of all the action who I knew very little about to begin with. Plus, Marie is an interesting character; she smart and intuitive and it was interesting to read about the French Revolution from a character who wasn't a royal.

Being a woman of such extraordinary means and having lived what I can only describe as an interesting yet precarious life during the years of the French Revolution, I'm surprised that not more has been written about her. Nowadays, Madame Tussaud is synonymous with her wax museums, and yet I wouldn't be surprised if I wasn't the only one who knows very little about the woman herself. As noted of course, this is a novel and not a non-fiction biography and so not every word Moran writes can be taken as gospel. Nevertheless, reading the story of Marie Grosholtz and her Paris salon made me interested to look her up myself, which I did, and I can only account that to Moran’s skill in sparking my genuine interest in a historical figure she brought to life.

There are however a lot of characters throughout the story and whilst I managed to grasp most of them, some took a while to hook on to my conscious thought simply because there was so many of them. There’s Duke such-a-body and the Marquise of so-and-so and so a few of them just blended in to one character to save me from repeatedly flipping back to find out exactly who they were. I can forgive Moran this because it didn’t take away from the story and these people were kind of essential in filling in the politics of the plot, and so without them I would have been at a bit of a loss at knowing who was currently Top Dog in Paris society.

Overall, this was a brilliant read and I’ll be giving Michelle Moran’s other novels a whirl in the near future. Considering I picked this up on a bit of a whim as I was browsing the library, Madame Tussaud turned out to be one of the best historical fiction novels I've read all year. A solid four stars.

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