Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution By Michelle Moran

Summary (from Goodreads): In this deft historical novel, Madame Tussaud (1761-1850) escapes the pages of trivia quizzes to become a real person far more arresting than even her waxwork sculptures. Who among us knew, for instance, that she moved freely through the royal court of Louis XVI, only to become a prisoner of the Reign of Terror? Her head was shaven for guillotining, but she escaped execution, though she was forced to make death masks for prominent victims. Novelist Michelle Moran covers this breathtaking period without losing the thread of its subject's singular story.

I've never read anything by Michelle Moran, but you can tell right away she really does her research on a time period (I see she has also has several other books that take place in ancient Egypt).

In Madame Tussaud, we see the French Revolution from the perspective of someone who is right in the middle of it all. Marie runs the Salon de Cire, and in order to fill her salon with wax figures of popular and interesting people (and thereby keep her income steady in these hard times of food shortages), Marie listens to the gossip, takes every opportunity to meet with prominent figures in society, even if she has to visit the local prison to do it.

When an opportunity arises to be the tutor to King Louis’s sister, pious and mild mannered Madame Elisabeth, Marie must take it (what an opportunity to find more faces for her wax museum!). But the public is hungry and unhappy with the lavish spending of the French royalty (though Marie could see Queen Marie Antoinette would be blamed no matter what she did). In Marie's salon, people like Robespierre and Marat meet and lash out against the monarchy.

This book was interesting because it straddles both sides of the argument. Marie and her family don’t really want to take sides, but in this political climate, and especially given their prominent role in the spreading of information (through wax figures, posters, and newsletters posted throughout their salon), not choosing sides is hardly an option. Refusing to wear the revolutionary’s cockade (symbol of loyalty to the cause) is not really an option, not when men will stop you on the street and demand to know why you are not supporting the revolution.

To stand against the king is treason, to stand against the revolution is just dangerous … but which side will win? What will that mean for Marie’s new friend in Madame Elisabeth? How long can Marie last?

The guillotine doesn’t even show up until most of the way through this book, and I see now how much more there is to the French Revolution, so many subtleties and shifts in thinking. I only knew the basics before, that aristocracy were rich and arrogant. That common people were poor and starving. Heads were lost. The fictional Scarlet Pimpernel gallantly saved aristocrats from the guillotine when the revolution turned bloody.

I really enjoyed this book. I especially loved that, at the very end, there is a section with some bits of the author's research that didn't fit in the novel (mostly because it took place after the story was over). There was a picture of the very first person to ever be photographed—a random guy on the street who happened to stand still long enough to be caught by the extra-long expose time.

Lit Snit Verdict: A-

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