Friday, May 20, 2011

House Of Wax

I had a history professor in college who loved to teach fiction as part of his curriculum.  Sadly, for me, since he taught British history, this meant I had to slog through more Charles Dickens than any one person should have to.  But I did read some good books, and there is some benefit (I think) in making history more palatable for people through the medium of fiction.  Yes, it's history, it's the past, but real people lived it.  Real people were effected by it.  And real people were left to pick up the pieces.  Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran is a perfect illustration of this.

The book opens in 1788 Paris, where Marie Grosholtz (she ain't Tussaud yet) is doing what all smart businesswoman before and since have done.  She's conspiring to drum up publicity.  She pulls strings and soon the royal family is visiting her Uncle's Salon de Cire, where Marie's amazing wax sculptures of famous (and infamous!) figures are on display.  It's through this visit that Marie's work catches the eye of King Louis XVI's sister, Princess Elisabeth.  She wants Marie to tutor her, and so she shall.  Even though there are grumblings and unrest in the streets, an affiliation with the royal family will mean more prestige and more money for the Salon de Cire.

However, the fortunes of France are swiftly turning.  Bad weather and bad harvests have left people desperate and hungry.  Soon there is revolution, and with it, comes chaos.  Men who demolish the monarchy, with promises of better things, instead bring tyranny, unspeakable violence, and turmoil.  In the midst of it all is Marie, straddling two worlds.  One as a favored tutor to a member of the royal family, and the other as a member of her Uncle's household where he hosts revolutionaries like Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and Marat in a weekly salon.  As her Uncle says during the course of this story, they are neither revolutionaries or royalists - they are survivalists.  And that is exactly what Marie does - she survives, and in spectacular fashion.

I'm a pretty typical American - which is to say what I know about the French Revolution can be summed up in how it relates to American history.  The French supported us during our Revolution (admittedly because it pissed the Brits off to do so), and when their own Revolution happened, we left them to it.  Partly because we still had problems of our own (starting up a new government takes some time - who knew?) and partly because we ended up horrified by the turn of events.  Revolution beget Terror, Terror beget the guillotine, with tens of thousands of people dying.  It was anarchy.  It was chaos on a very grand scale.

Moran does an exceptional job of bringing that chaos to life.  The story of the Revolution is told through the eyes of the author's fictional depiction of Marie Grosholtz, the enormous trials she faced, and what she had to do to keep herself, and her family, intact.  What she loses, what she gives up, and ultimately how she triumphs through it all make for one hell of a story.  This was one kick-ass woman.  A woman ahead of her time.  A woman who, once she becomes a Madame, was smart enough to get it in writing that what was hers was still hers and not her husband's (how she managed to pull this off the author does not explain, but seriously?  You go girl!  We're talking the 18th century folks!  The 18th century and the chick had a pre-nup!).

I'm not doing this story justice.  I suspect some readers may find the ending a bit rushed given the careful unfolding of the first half of the story, and the romance readers among you will probably not be happy about a pivotal decision Marie makes (but hey, the author can't tweak that much history), but I don't have the heart to quibble.  I was too riveted.  This is a big departure for Moran, whose previous three books were all set in ancient Egypt, and here she captures a slice, a turbulent moment, in world history.  Because let us not forget, the Revolution beget Napoleon as well.

Grade = A


Amy said...

I love reading historical fiction for this very reason -- yeah, it's the past, but there's so much you can learn from reading even a fun book as such. It always makes me go 'look stuff up' to read more about it.

Great review! I think I'll have to look this one up now. FWIW, I recommend Christine Trent's historical fiction books, The Queen's Dollmaker and A Royal Likeness, featuring Marie Antoinette and Madame Tussaud, respectively. Great books!

BevBB said...

they are survivalists

Yeah. I've never truly gotten into historical fiction, or even biographies, (the sappy ones anyway) but I do appreciate those gutsy survivors types. ;-)

Cathy in AK said...

I was just watching a History Channel show on "Dirty Paris" at the time of the revolution. What a nasty, nasty place to live if you weren't a royal! With that in mind, it sounds like Moran captured the flavor of the time (perhaps even the stench? ;).

Madame Tussaud sounds like a heroine I want to know. Thanks for the review!

Marguerite Kaye said...

Fab review Wendy, I've just ordered this to read, though for some reason the UK version has a completely different cover.

I'm a huge fan of historical fiction and find anything to do with the French Revolution utterly, horribly fascinating. I can highly, highly, highly recommend Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety if you wanted something else from the same period, and on the same lines, the French film Danton with Gerard Depardieu before he got all flabby!

Wendy said...

Amy: That's what always happens to me too! I go on the hunt to "learn more." Oooh, and thanks for the Trent rec. I've heard of those books. I think I might have bought them for work?

BevBB: I appreciated how the author was able to convey the terror and chaos of this time period. And yeah, I love reading about the gutsy survivors as well :)

Cathy: And even if you were a royal! Moran describes certain "behavior" that went on at the Palace of Versailles that made my skin crawl and my nose scream for mercy. Just....ewwwwwwww.

Marguerite: Will look up the Mantel. Pretty sure I can easily get my hands on a copy here in the US thanks to her Booker win (was that just last year?) And LOL re: Gerard Depardieu!