by Michelle Moran
Marie Grosholtz, as ambitious as she is clever, creates wax sculptures for the Salon de Cire, her uncle’s wax museum. The Salon de Cire is celebrated for the lifelike accuracy of the figures and the speed at which Grosholtz brings the latest news, celebrities and politics to the masses via her tableaus. When Marie learns that the royal family plans to visit her museum, she welcomes the publicity and the future business it will bring. Marie Antoinette and her family are so impressed that an unexpected offer is made: Princess Elisabeth, sister to King Louis XVI, requests that Marie give her lessons in wax sculpting. Always thinking of her business, Marie agrees; she’ll lose valuable time to work on her Salon’s displays, but gain an inside scoop on life within the palace of Versailles and its glamorous court.
Even as Marie begins her lessons with the princess, surrounded by luxury and wealth, the cafes of Paris are filled with talk of revolution. Many of her uncle’s friends– men like Camille Desmoulins, Jean-Paul Marat, and Maximilien Robespierre – meet at Marie’s home and discuss the anger and frustration of the French people, who suffer under the tyranny of the nobility. When rebellion breaks out and the monarchy is overthrown, Marie is caught in the middle. Her known connection with the Princess Elisabeth makes her a target for the government, but as long as she creates anti-royalist propaganda with her wax sculptures she is safe. During the tumultuous chaos of the French Revolution, can Marie’s talent keep her family safe from the wrath of the mob?
All of the beauty of Versailles and the bloody horror of the French Revolution can be found in Madame Tussaud. In a way, the book is like a bottle of perfume. A few drops of scent is light and pretty, pleasant to smell. Marie starts out with a thriving business that attracts the attention of royalty, while her friendship with neighbor Henri Charles is growing into something deeper. But spray too much perfume and the scent changes, becoming cloying and no longer a pleasure to the nose. As discontent insidiously spreads among the Parisians, the story darkens. Marie’s enjoyment of her work disappears as she loses control over the content of her museum; instead of making the tableaus she thinks people want to see, she has to tell the stories the new government wants the people to hear. And, just like the stink of an entire perfume bottle emptied all at once, the bloody executions that fill the second half of the book will leave you feeling slightly nauseated.
Michelle Moran has an amazing talent with creating vivid imagery, and she uses her gift to maximum effect here. Even though I knew that Marie had to survive – otherwise, how would we have gotten Tussaud museums around the world? – the atmosphere during the Reign of Terror is so threatening that I was on the edge of my seat. I was so drawn into the story that I could hardly put the book down to eat, and I stayed up late into the night to finish it. As I was working on this review, I would occasionally pick up the book to re-read a page or two in order to jog my memory. More than once, I would get sucked back into the story and read several chapters before remembering my original intention.
Fans of Michelle Moran have probably already picked up a copy of this book, but if you haven’t, do so soon. She may have moved her stories out of the ancient world, but Madame Tussaud is just as good – if not better – than her previous novels. If you haven’t yet picked up one of her books, I highly recommend starting with this one.
5 out of 5 stars