Friday, October 05, 2018

Edward Carey's Little, a witty, macabre epic about the woman who became Madame Tussaud

Carey presents an immensely creative epic that follows a poor orphan’s rise to become the famous Madame Tussaud.

Born in 1761, and nicknamed “Little” for her petite size, Anne Marie Grosholtz becomes the unpaid apprentice of her late mother’s odd, nervous employer, Dr. Curtius. After fleeing to Paris, they join forces with a redoubtable widow and her son. Their skills with wax attract attention, leading to their unusual museum and Marie’s invitation to tutor Princesse Elisabeth at Versailles.

At a time of rampant social disparities, the museum becomes a great equalizer: a place where royalty, poets, and notorious murderers—that is, their sculpted stand-ins—can be viewed up close, and ordinary people can participate in a lottery to be models themselves.

Mingling a sense of playfulness with macabre history, Carey depicts the excesses of wealth and violence during the French Revolution through the eyes of a talented woman who lived through it and survived. The oddball characters and gothic eccentricities evoke Tim Burton’s work, but without any fantastical elements; the reality is sufficiently strange on its own.

Carey shows how the seemingly absurd, like royal servants lodging in cupboards and artisans forced to re-create newly executed people’s heads in wax, becomes shockingly routine. The unique perspective, witty narrative voice, and clever illustrations make for an irresistible read.

I wrote this starred review for Booklist's September issue.  Little will be published later this month by Riverhead in the US. Aardvark Bureau published it in the UK this week.

The question of whether there are fantastical elements in the book (see the review at Kirkus) seems up for debate; it depends on whether you believe that some of the objects Marie encounters are actually sentient, or if her perceptions are due to her unique view of the world. I chose the latter, and appreciate how it was written to be read either way.

Also, having read and loved Michelle Moran's Madame Tussaud (see my earlier review), I wondered how similar a read Little would be.  My conclusion: other than being based on the same person and circumstances, they're very different in approach and tone.  It's worth reading both!


  1. I have a few Carey books on the shelves I was given a few years ago, but I haven't read them yet. Ah, so many books, so little time.

  2. I hadn't read any of his novels before this one. I know what you mean!

  3. This absolutely sounds like a delightful must-read. So I must!

  4. It's unique and definitely captured me!

  5. Liz V.3:13 PM

    Your review reminded me of a book, not about Tussaud but an apprentice. Finally remembered A Royal Likeness by Christine Trent, which I recall as giving a good bit of background on Tussaud not much of it favorable.

    1. I haven't read that novel yet - would you recommend it?

    2. Liz V.9:36 PM

      When I read this book in 2013, I rated it 4 out of 5 stars but didn't write a review, so I don't know how to answer. Have you read any Christine Trent books? If not, this might be a good sample.

    3. I haven't yet, but that sounds like a good one to start with.