Review: Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

Hardcover: 464 pages

Publisher: Crown (February 15, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0307588653
ISBN-13: 978-0307588654
genre: historical fiction
target group: adults


The end of 18th century, France. Marie Grosholtz, a young woman of Swiss origin, lives with her mother, an uncle and three adult brothers in Paris. Her uncle is a showman by trade – he owns le Salon de Cire (the salon of wax) and Marie and her mother work for him – Marie is responsible for making clay and waxwork heads of different celebrities, her mum runs the house and sells tickets . In an age when the majority of commoners are uneducated or poorly educated at best, Marie and her family are able to provide people with the latest information on political figures and moods. Marie is a very gifted sculptor and a clever businesswoman – she even manages to secure a visit of the French royal family to their salon. The queen Marie Antoinette is impressed by her own wax figure’s likeness so much that Marie is invited by the sister of the king Louis XVI, Madame Elisabeth, to Versailles to be her wax modelling tutor.

On the other hand Marie’s uncle, Philippe Curtius, befriends people from quite different walks of life – Robespierre, Marat, Desmoulins, Lafayette– who soon will become the main figures of the approaching French Revolution. While Marie discovers the charms and dangers of the royal palace, her uncle is more and more involved in revolutionary plottings. He does it on purpose – Marie’s family are “survivalists” who try to straddle both worlds until it’s clear which side will be the victor. However, they never come across as opportunists – you quickly understand they simply had no choice living in such difficult times. Balancing two opposites becomes more and more precarious though, especially that Marie truly befriends and sympathizes with her royal pupil and falls in love with a young promising scientist called Henri Charles who is her uncle’s neighbour and not a big fan of the Revolution either. Soon enough Henri asks for her hand but she hesitates. Although she loves him she can’t imagine having a family and managing the business in an efficient way at the same time. She is clearly that workaholic type. 😉

Madame Tussauds wax museum in Washington DCMadame Tussaud’s museum in London via Wikipedia

When the Revolution breaks out Marie is ordered to show her patriotism by making wax models of important people decapitated by the guillotine. Post mortem. It is a very grim task but she must do what she is told or she might soon become one of the victims herself. Henri decides to flee to London and he proposes to Marie again but she doesn’t want to marry and follow him if it would mean leaving the rest of her family behind. As the Reign of  Terror approaches Marie finds herself more and more disillusioned with the Revolution which brought her only fears, sorrows, deaths and pain. Finally Robespierre asks her to do something truly horrible, she refuses and is arrested, along with her mother. While awaiting the execution  she meets a young engineer, Francois Tussaud, who helps her and her sick mum to cope with the ugly reality in one of the most horrid Paris prisons. The book ends when Robespierre is decapitated and the days of terror are over. What will the future bring to Marie and her friends? Will her salon prosper once again?

What I liked:

I have no doubts that this book is better than Nefertiti. Marie Grosholtz/Madame Tussaud was a very good choice of a main character– she was as fascinating as the times she lived in. Miraculously she got to know not only the royal family but also the major figures of the Revolution – and lived to tell the tale. She was an independent woman who knew and liked her trade and could earn a decent living – a rare thing in 18th century! Moran portrayed her character in a way that was genuine and realistic.

The times of French Revolution were described in a way that is historically correct (but, as I am hardly a French Revolution scholar so treat this statement as only my very subjective opinion), with plenty of interesting details. The book was a real page-turner – I read it in two days! As there are a lot of characters in this novel, you can find a very useful list of them in the front of the book along with the time line, historical notes and also a glossary for those who are unfamiliar with French words as the book is peppered with them.

Madame Tussaud’s self-portrait in wax

The softback cover is really very nice!

What I didn’t like:

Believe me, I wanted to like this book very much but it left me puzzled and somewhat cold. In my view it lacked the grittiness of the average person’s experience. The French Revolution remains one of the most interesting periods in the European history and here I couldn’t feel it. Neither the horror of the guillotine nor the grandeur of the royal court are presented in all the glorious/gory details. Writing historical fiction means that you want to reconstruct the events and the atmosphere of a given era. The events are right in place in this book, no problem, but I didn’t feel the atmosphere; it was as if I visited an old-fashioned museum, where you can admire interesting exhibits in glass cabinets, read about them and their history but somehow you don’t feel involved because you can’t touch anything.

My other huge reason to complain is the ending – in my opinion the book ends right in the middle! The blurb clearly promises that we are going to be shown how “a young girl comes to be known as the woman behind one of the most famous museums in the world” but the novel doesn’t deliver! We find out about the rest of Marie’s story, I might add the crucial rest, from a short paragraph in the last “After the Revolution” chapter. Perhaps the authoress decided that the whole focus should be given to the years of the French Revolution but I found it really strange and unjust. When you write about such an interesting character as Madame Tussaud and you omit one half of her adult life (maybe even more) you either fish for a sequel contract or you simply don’t do your work properly. I felt cheated, especially as the book is told from Marie’s point of view. Ok, she survives, she marries Francois and what, end of the story, nothing to write home about? I doubt it, especially that we are very succinctly informed that Marie’s marriage to Monsieur Tussaud was a big fat disaster – so big that she finally decided to leave France with one of her sons and settle in London, reuniting with the love of her life. Isn’t it  fantastic material for some additional chapters? Wouldn’t it be lovely to read how she rearanged her private life and restarted her business in the Great Britain?  If not, perhaps the title of this book should be changed into something like “Marie Grosholtz witnessing the Revolution” or even better – “The French Revolution observed from le Salon de Cire”. “Madame Tussaud” without madame Tussaud is really a senseless idea.

Final verdict:

I am left conflicted. The book is undeniably well-written and interesting but somehow it didn’t manage to move me. The history of French Revolution is treated with respect but the main character and her personal story – not. Reading it wasn’t a waste of time but it wasn’t the time of my life either. One thing is certain – now I would love to find out more about Madame Tussaud! I might even visit Madame Tussaud’s museum in London just to admire her autoportrait in wax! I am not sure, though, whether I am going to read another of Ms Moran’s books. The jury is still out.

Marie Antoinette by Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun

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5 Responses to Review: Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

  1. Blodeuedd says:

    Oh you 😉 You are so hard to please when it comes to his fic. I thought this one was so gritty and the horror was present. And as for the palace I liked how they made it so grand but at the same time gross

  2. anachronist says:

    Well Versailles was gross, it was grand but not enough! And we never get a good description of any decapitation either! Yeah, I am a finicky reader when it comes to historical fiction. I was especially galled by the lack of Madame Tussaud in this book ;p

  3. LOL Love reading the review and then you and Blodeuedd in discussion. 🙂 Clowns and creepy wax sculptures; ew to both. *shivers* However, if it lacks some of the historical background and personality of Madame, then it's not a book for me.

  4. I loved Versailles. I came home and looked around my little garden with its 'cottagey' look and grew very dissatisfied. I have a small boxwood hedge that I am coaxing along as we speak. Les jardins etaient manifique!Madame Tussaud sounds very interesting. (the person not the novel)

  5. anachronist says:

    Thanks Melissa – I love quarreling with my dear Blodeuedd especially that she is so nice and always lets me know what she really thinks! One of my great unfulfilled wishes (one day!) is to go to Paris on my own and see it all The Red Witch. After all Versailles was copied throughout the Europe so the original must be good!

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