Thursday, March 22, 2012

A look at Madame Tussaud, by Michelle Moran

“You need to read Michelle Moran’s new book,” urged a reviewer friend after finishing Madame Tussaud. “Her ancient Egypt novels were good, but here she takes her writing to a whole new level.” I can’t help but agree. An epic about a smart woman and her troubled times, it depicts the transformation of Marie Grosholtz into the renowned wax artist whose creative skills were put to the test during the French Revolution.

In its depiction of celebrity culture, the tale feels strikingly modern. Her family’s exhibition at the Salon de Cire is where Parisians come to see the day’s superstars – their wax doubles, that is. From an authentic re-creation of Thomas Jefferson’s elegant study to Marie Antoinette at her boudoir, they give the public what they want to see. As the novel hints, their creations are not just mannequins but symbols for the real thing, a fact that carries both responsibility and danger.  Marie gets what she wants, too: a museum visit from the king and queen.  Despite their growing unpopularity, Marie is a businesswoman at heart and knows their presence will draw crowds.

Very soon, she finds herself giving sculpting lessons to the king’s devout sister, Madame Élisabeth, at Versailles, while her three brothers serve in the Swiss Guard.  At the same time, in the evenings at their home, the kindly man she calls her uncle, her mentor Philippe Curtius, hosts a salon attended by the revolution’s future architects: Robespierre, Desmoulins, and the Duc d’Orléans.

While Marie and her family prosper, thousands are starving in the streets and blame the royals for their misfortune. What starts as a people's rebellion devolves into bloody anarchy, a process conveyed in rich, devastating detail. The king and queen, while sympathetically portrayed, are self-absorbed and make foolish choices, and during this painful time in French history, even the smallest connection to the aristocracy leads one to the guillotine. Marie, whose family has the Revolution’s trust, has the grisly honor of creating death masks for its most famous victims. She is the ultimate survivor: by keeping one foot in each camp, she saves her business and her head.

This magnificently crafted work makes you forget you’re reading fiction; the story is so real and immediate that you’ll feel like you’re watching each vivid scene as it happens. Highly recommended.


Madame Tussaud was published by Broadway in December at $15.00/$17.00 in Canada (trade pb, 456pp, including glossary, author's note, and reader's guide).  Quercus is the UK publisher, at £7.99. I read the added material in full, so I think this qualifies for the Chunkster Challenge even though that doesn't seem fair.  I barely noticed the page count as I was reading.


  1. I've only read Cleopatra's Daughter, which I liked but didn't love. You make this one sound amazing!

  2. I haven't gotten to Cleopatra's Daughter yet, but I read Nefertiti and enjoyed it. (I've heard Cleo's Daughter was written as a YA crossover title, if that helps.) This one is a much meatier read, with deeper characterizations, too.

  3. I really need to read this book. I have had it since it came out, but haven't picked it up yet.

  4. That happens a lot with me too - the TBR is too large.

  5. This was one of my favorite reads in 2011.

  6. Your review was so good that I just pulled this off of the library shelf to check out!

  7. That's great - hope you enjoy it!

  8. Mario Hamameh10:04 PM

    A great description of a woman that managed to create a successful business with the royal family while supporting their opposing revolution in a time where any wrong action or word can cost you your life.