Palo Alto Weekly

- April 22, 2011

The woman behind the wax

'Madame Tussaud' brings history to life

"Madame Tussaud: a novel of the French Revolution" by Michelle Moran; Crown Publishing Group, New York; 448 pp; $25

The name Madame Tussaud conjures images of the famous London wax museum, showcasing eerily lifelike wax models of celebrities, world leaders and notable characters. But what about the real person behind the name?

In Palo Alto author Michelle Moran's new novel "Madame Tussaud," the titular Tussaud herself gets a voice, and the tale she has to tell is fascinating.

Moran, who's tackled iconic females from history in previous novels ("Cleopatra's Daughter," "The Heretic Queen," "Nefertiti") once again delivers an engaging, first-person narrative. The setting is Paris during the tumultuous French Revolution, a period that saw the overthrow of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, the suppression of religion and the rise of the guillotine.

At novel's start, pragmatic Marie Grosholtz (her marriage to Mr. Tussaud comes later) is living with her mother in Paris and helping her mother's partner (and Marie's mentor) run the family wax museum, which showcases replicas of Paris' most famous citizens and visitors. After a much-anticipated visit by the glamorous royal family, Marie, much to her shock, is asked to tutor the king's religiously devout and sheltered sister Princess Elisabeth in the art of wax working. During her time at the royal Palace of Versailles, Marie is befriended by and grows fond of the royals, who are well-meaning but woefully naive and out of touch with reality — a reality in which the common people of France are suffering poverty and famine and blame the extravagant royal family for their dire situation.

In the meantime, Marie's family and home also frequently play host to a number of radical thinkers who want to expel the royals and institute a republic in their place, inspired by the recent American Revolution. As discord grows, Marie finds herself torn between the two factions, trying to maintain her relationship with the royals while keeping her business (and her head) through shows of support for the revolutionary cause, which, as it grows in strength, turns increasingly erratic and violent. Marie must keep a foot in both worlds, preserving her friendships while avoiding making dangerous enemies.

One of the most interesting elements of the book is the depiction of how the wax museum serves a critical purpose for the people of Paris. Though it now exists as a tourist attraction, in the novel it acts as a sort of visual newspaper for the pre-photography Parisians, with ever-changing exhibits depicting the leading figures and newsmakers of the day. Famous U.S. statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who both spent considerable time in France, are represented there, as well as the royals themselves and the revolutionaries who seek to overthrow them. It is Marie's job to keep current with the news cycle and create fresh scenes for spectators hungry for information. She takes it very seriously, throwing herself into her work with the dream of one day being invited to join the Académie des Sciences.

Marie's patriotic duty also takes a grislier turn when she is asked to make death masks of those killed in the upheaval, handling severed heads and roaming battle sites looking for corpses to model. Moran gives wonderful details about how the elaborate wax models are created, with painstaking care and sometimes even real human teeth and hair.

As the book takes place mostly only within the five-year period when Marie Tussaud is involved with the royal family and the revolution, the rest of her interesting life, such as her turbulent marriage, successful wax-museum career in London and so on are just mentioned briefly as an epilogue. Even the character of Monsier Tussaud, from whom she got her famous last name, barely makes it into the book. I appreciate that Moran focused on the intense French Revolution period but it still seemed a bit of a letdown to have the narrator's long life wrapped up so abruptly.

Marie Tussaud as a narrator is likeable and admirable, but can occasionally come off as a bit cold and bland in her desire to further her business above all things — even her romance with earnest scientist and best friend Henri. But she was a woman ahead of her time — independent, talented and more interested in her artistic and scientific career than in settling down with a family, making her a more-than worthy subject. Though we'll never know the true inner thoughts of the real Madame Tussaud, she must have indeed been remarkably level-headed to survive and thrive in such a trying time.

On the whole, Moran's done another excellent job of immersing the reader in history in this compelling novel.

Editorial Assistant Karla Kane can be e-mailed at kkane@paweekly.com.

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