Marie Grosholtz, the protagonist of Michelle Moran's new novel MADAME TUSSAUD (Crown 2011), straddles the two worlds that collide in the bloody foment of the French revolution. Niece of Philippe Curtius, the Swiss showman who runs a popular wax-model attraction known as the Salon de Cire, Marie lives among laborers and entertainers on the Rue du Temple and listens to the fiery political debates of Marat, Camille Desmoulins, and Robespierre in her uncle's parlor. Yet, Marie is no stranger to the glittering world of the nobility. Engaged as wax tutor to the King's sister, she comes to have intimate knowledge of the muddled King, the extravagant but good-hearted Marie Antoinette and the kind and religious Elisabeth through her biweekly visits to the Princess's palace and the Princess's trusting friendship.
Marie's role as intermediary between the two worlds creates the conflict that makes Moran's novel a gripping, thought-provoking read. Each faction assumes Marie's complete loyalty. The revolutionaries depend on her to create scenes at the museum that not only chronicle the developing revolution but influence public opinion in favor of its radical philosophy. Unaware of Marie's ties to the opposition, Princess Elisabeth confides to her details of the royals' private lives and reactions to the unfolding events and trusts Marie to bring her news from the outside once she is placed under house arrest. Marie finds herself in an uncomfortable and dangerous position as the revolt against the monarchy turns violently ugly. To appear to support the royals in any capacity would place her family and livelihood in extreme danger, yet her growing dissatisfaction with the revolutionaries' tactics and her friendship with the princess cause her to question her complicity with her radical friends in the scenes and figures she creates. Ever the businesswoman, Marie juggles her two roles for as long as she can for the sake of the Salon, but ultimately she must choose between them. Moran masterfully manipulates Marie's inner tension, keeping the reader wondering how events will play out and what type of person Marie will become. To great effect, the author crystallizes the general societal crisis in Marie's personal turmoil, reminding the reader that individual conscience plays a pivotal role in determining the course of history.
In MADAME TUSSAUD, her fourth published novel, Moran moves effortlessly from ancient Egypt and classical Rome to the streets and salons of eighteenth century France. The world she evokes is a convincing one, filled with details of dress and custom and architecture that settle the reader comfortably in the historical milieu. The novel provides a fascinating look at the art of wax modeling, and, even more interesting, the role Curtius's Salon de Cire played in portraying and synthesizing political events for the masses in an era that predated photography and video. Moran does an admirable job of conveying the complicated history of the late eighteenth century in a clear and concise manner. She narrates the story in short chapters, each headed by a date and a contemporary quotation, a strategy that allows her to trim dead time from the narrative and linger as long as necessary on specific hours, days or weeks. However, it is Moran's characterizations that most strongly testify to her consummate skill as a novelist. Readers will long remember the shrewd yet open-minded Marie; her loyal yet practical lover Henri Charles; sheltered, faith-filled Princess Elisabeth; impish, resourceful Yachin; and damaged, power-hungry Robespierre. With her appreciation for ambiguity and ambivalence, Moran manages to humanize figures that, like Marie's wax, have hardened into stereotypes down through the centuries.
I highly recommend MADAME TUSSAUD as one of the best historical novels I have read this year. I'm thrilled Michelle has decided to visit France as a setting for her novels, and hope she will remain there for many books to come. Learn more about Michelle Moran and her novels at michellemoran.com.