I’m nearly always up for a good war story, because let’s face it – the conflict practically writes itself. Madame Tussaud seemed like such a good idea; it’s set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, and features a protagonist who straddles both worlds. Madame Tussaud tutors a member of the royal family in wax modeling and holds a salon for revolutionaries. Besides, several of my friends liked the book. Unfortunately, I found the whole thing stilted and hard to get through.
The book begins on the eve of the Revolution in December of 1788. Madame Tussaud isn’t a Tussaud yet – she’s Marie Grosholtz. Her family came to Paris from Switzerland, and her mother took up with Philippe Curtius, a wax modeler who has taught Marie the trade. Curtius now makes most of the bodies that they model in the Temple Street Salon de Cire, while Marie makes the faces – something for which she has a particular talent. In addition to their various tableaux with wax models, the family runs a salon frequented by revolutionary thinkers like Robespierre, Marat, and Camille Desmoulins. The family is subject to all of the interesting talk of the day. However, Marie’s three brothers all serve in the illustrious Swiss Guards, a regiment that works in Versailles and guard Louis XVI and his family.
Marie convinces the queen’s dressmaker, Rose Bertin, to sit for a tableau, which leads not only to a visit by the royal family, but also a new opportunity for Marie to tutor Princesse Elisabeth, the king’s sister. Maire jumps at the chance and ends up forming a friendship with the Princesse. It’s also a wise business move; after the king’s visit, they have crowds just waiting to get into their exhibition. Marie is highly motivated by wealth and security, and is a savvy businesswoman. In fact, the family is quite comfortable at a time when many are starving in the streets of Paris. The harvest was poor, and food is expensive.
The book then follows the events of the French Revolution. In a somewhat Forrest Gump-like fashion, Marie is there for virtually every important event and is somehow a part of it. Granted, there are some that she was indeed a part of; it’s a documented fact that Marie made wax models from the severed heads of two men (in the street, with a crowd looking on). However, she manages to be present whenever anything at all happens. Meanwhile, her family is pulled into the conflict, trying to straddle both sides. Marie also has a love interest in the scientist/philosopher Henri who lives next door. he keeps asking her to leave with him and go to England, but she doesn’t want to leave her family or her wax models.
You can sort of guess how it all turns out, since it’s historical fiction and you probably already know that Madame Tussaud had a famous wax museum in England after the revolution. Which, of course, is still there (and other locations) today. I assumed that you all knew this and that anyone reading my review would be of reasonable intelligence. That’s not something the author assumes; she pretty much explains even the most basic aspects of the French Revolution (and other things) as if all her readers just fell off the applecart yesterday. Her underlying assumption is that you probably haven’t heard of the French Revolution, don’t know that it was a hot mess, and must be spoonfed every detail. She even clarifies this in her Q and A section at the end, where she implies that most people don’t realize that the French revolution was violent, and that Marie Antionette was in a tough situation. Oh, and if you are unaware what “old as Methuselah” means, she explains that for you too.
A lot of this is explaining is done awkwardly by the characters, in unrealistic conversations. They explain things to each other that the other party probably already knows, but the reader might be unaware of. Like if when my husband came home tonight I greeted him with, “As you know, we live in Colorado and have four children and two dogs,” and he replied, “Yes, and this August we will have been married for 24 years.”
Certainly the backdrop of the story is exciting and dangerous, which is probably what kept me turning the pages. But I had trouble sympathizing with Marie. Her penny-pinching ways come through loud and clear, and I think I was basically done with her when her beloved Henri sails for England and she can’t be convinced to leave. Yes, her mother was staying behind, but she had a brother, sister-in-law and nephew in England, and her life was obviously in danger. And it was pretty obvious that her biggest worry was for her wax figures rather than her family or her lover. In my head I couldn’t help comparing her to the more sympathetic Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett is also a hard-headed businesswoman, but you feel like she’s motivated to save her family and her home rather than just sit back and watch the dollars roll in. And while some of the secondary characters are more sympathetic, you’re better off not getting attached to any of them.
I can already tell you that many people liked Madame Tussaud better than I did, including at least two people whose taste usually aligns more closely with mine. But to me it was just an awkward attempt to teach the unknowing about the French Revolution. If that’s what you’re after, I honestly think you are better off reading A Tale of Two Cities.