Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution

Written by Michelle Moran
Review by Bethany Latham

Everyone knows Madame Tussaud’s; the name conjures photo ops of smiling celebrities standing next to perfect likenesses of themselves in wax. Moran explores the origins of the phenomenon, and in the process sculpts an unlikely heroine.

Tussaud, born Marie Grosholtz, is the daughter of a Swiss émigré who has become housekeeper and more to the kind Dr. Curtius in Paris. Under Curtius’s tutelage, Marie models wax faces with uncanny realism, a talent that, when combined with her keen business sense, allows the two of them to run a successful salon. Curtius’s home is a hotbed of revolutionary personalities: Marat, Robespierre, Danton and more air their ideas about the need for radical change. The mix grows even more unstable when Marie becomes tutor to Princess Elisabeth, the king’s sister, at Versailles. This allows the novel to explore both sides of the coin: the fatal ignorance of the royal family, painted with infinite sympathy, and the equally devastating rhetoric of the revolutionaries, who find themselves destroyed by the very anarchy they created.

The idea of Marie’s wax tableaux being a news source as important as any newspaper is an intriguing one; Marie must be at the forefront of events so she can keep her wax figures (and the public clamoring to see them) up to date — out goes Marie Antoinette at her toilette, in comes the hulking Danton. Moran’s forte is the ability to show the volatility of the French Revolution, conveying the horror of mob rule and ever-shifting political tides that see men and women at the pinnacle of power one day and dismembered the next, a situation that threatens to sweep away Marie and her entire family. As Marie herself asks, “What are we? Royalists? Revolutionaries?” and there is only one reply, “Survivalists.”

Moran’s latest is an excellent and entertaining novel steeped in the zeitgeist of the period. Highly recommended.