This year I decided to look at historical fiction beyond WW2. There are so many revolutions and so much history from so many different parts of the world to catch up on, that it seems like a shame to restrict oneself.
It is with this thought that I picked up Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud. The book is set in the times of the French Revolution. I hadn’t read anything about it and all I knew was Marie Antoinette’s famous ‘Let them eat cake’ statement which, as it turns out, wasn’t true at all.
The other thing that I associated with the French Revolution was the guillotine, and that it sent many royals to their death. As it turns out that was a bit of a misnomer too as a large majority of people guillotined were commoners.
Onto the book now
It is set in the Paris of 1788. Marie, an ambitious, hard-nosed businesswoman runs a wax museum along with her uncle Curtius and her mother.
Each week her uncle hosts a salon that sees men of influence gather together. Talk veers from royal gossip to politics. Marie and her uncle are part of these discussions but remain carefully neutral. They continue to cater to the rich and the famous who come to them for having their wax figurines modelled.
Marie manages to invite the queen for a visit. So impressed is the royal entourage by her skill that she is called over by the King’s sister to teach her wax modelling.
Marie travels to Versailles and gets to see the royals from up close. She discovers a glittering world where lavish parties are hosted every day, where elaborate dresses are worn just once, where glass rooms are done up with massive chandeliers with candles that are discarded after a single use. In stark contrast are the sad streets of Paris where bread is scarce and candles are not available even on the black market.
Marie discovers another side to the royals too. They aren’t cruel and unfeeling as they’ve been made out to be. The King’s sister Elisabeth is a pious girl who would have been a nun if not for her royal duties. She makes wax models of saints. The queen is a sensible woman juggling the needs of the common people and the expectations of the nobles. The King’s worst trait is his complete disconnect with the masses leaving him unaware of their needs.
As the revolution takes over all of Paris, even the slightest royal leanings can lead one to the guillotine. How long will Marie be able to straddle the two worlds and keep herself and her family safe?
This was an utterly astonishing book
I would have found it difficult to believe the events described here, had it all not been part of history. The character of Marie in itself is a rarity. A working woman in the 18th century is a definite oddity. Not only is she highly skilled but also ambitious enough to put love and marriage on the back burner. Midway through the book Curtius is called away to lead the revolutionaries leaving Marie to manage the salon and the household. And she proves perfectly competent to do that.
Marie makes for the perfect narrator
She straddles two diverse worlds with ease. She lives among the people, is a commoner herself albeit a relatively privileged one. These are turbulent times and a revolution is brewing. Through the weekly meetings, she befriends influential revolutionary leaders, most of whom drop by to catch up on the gossip, to share and to plan. And yet she keeps in touch with the royals enabling her to tell both sides of the story.
Curtius and Marie’s museum
… is more a reflection of the times, than that of their ideology. They put business above everything else. At the beginning of the book, royal figures are given centre stage in their show. As the revolution progresses figures of the rebels replace the royals. Some of the most horrifying sequences are the ones where Marie is forced to make figures of the severed heads of royalty and those loyal to them.
The buildup is slow
… as one gets to know the varied ideologies and the very complicated politics of those times. But then that’s the way revolutions happen. They don’t flare up in a day. We are witness to the small pockets of discontent to the final Frankenstein monster that the revolution becomes, destroying even those who conceived it.
Told in the first person
… the author seamlessly marries fact with fiction. The research that would have gone into the book must have been phenomenal. There are also endnotes that help separate fact from fiction.
If I had to mention one failing of the book it would be the lack of a proper ending. It was rather abrupt and left me a little lost.
Last Thought: If you like historical fiction and the French revolution intrigues you, this is the book for you.
2 Replies to “Madame Tussaud #BookReview”
The only book on French Revolution I have read is “The Scarlet Pimpernel”! Thanks for the recco, will check it out!
I haven’t read much historical fiction around French Revolution. Studying the history of art in the era kind of made up for it. This one looks like an interesting read. I will surely check it out.