Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review: Madame Tussaud

Michelle Moran

Madame Tussaud

By Michelle Moran
Broadway Books, December 2011

About the Book

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?

My Review

Marie walks on a razor’s edge, between the royal family she has come to know and respect and the revolutionary commoners who support her thriving business. As the revolution gains momentum, she must walk that line carefully, as anyone suspected of harboring royalist sympathies meets the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. With three brothers in the Swiss Guards, entrusted with protecting the king, and her uncle serving in the new regime’s military, she becomes a survivalist, doing whatever necessary, including making death masks of newly executed traitors, to stay alive.

This is a moving tale. Not only do we get a glimpse inside the life of a remarkable historical figure—a keen businesswoman who allowed no war, prison, or failed marriage to deter her rise to the top—we also get an inside look into the complexities of the revolution from a perspective that was close to both the crown and those who overthrew it. This is a more commonsense, realistic perspective from someone inside the fray. Ms. Moran has a very terse, blunt writing style that propels the plot onward even when the misery drags on and all seems lost. A great read!

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

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