On my last visit to Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, I was amazed by some impressively lifelike figures, and appalled by the inability of others to capture the personalities they portrayed. When I went to the Madame Tussaud's on Baker Street in London, I remember stepping into a huge open hall and being confronted with the entire royal family, looking all too real, dressed up for Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding. Regardless of how you feel about wax figures and their displays, Michelle Moran's latest novel will blow you away. It's a fascinating journey that gives readers a whole new way of looking at wax sculptures and their implications in both art and politics, and the life of the woman who gave them cultural significance.
The Salon de Cite was a place that, according to Moran, sounded like a Ripley's Believe It Or Not Emporium. It was an entertainment venue, a place where the famous people of the day were recreated in wax and displayed in provocatively casual settings. It's the time before the French Revolution, when the popular status of King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette begins to wane, when Paris and its environs fall prey to bad economic times and all the associated difficulties. But when the Queen, King and their children come to the Salon, approve their waxworks and donate objects to their displays, the Salon finds itself dealing with long lines of excited customers. Good news for the Salon! Tussaud packs up and hits the road for Versailles, where she is to stay and work with other members of the royal family. However, this continued interest in and patronage from the royal family causes problems for Tussaud and her own family, in ways she could not have foreseen.
The book combines a love story, a historical narrative, and all the pain and suffering of the storming of the Bastille and other remarkably key issues in the political undoing of Marie Antoinette and her royal palais. Moran uses Tussaud as the main character, narrating the story for us with a mixture of youthful candor and old-world language. The narrative zips along very nicely; the chapters are brief but filled with details about famous intellectual figures and the specifics of Tussaud's work. The writing is not fancy, but it gets the job done. There are so many facts and political figures woven into Tussaud's story that a preoccupation with style would overcome the substance. Moran has given this same treatment to Nefertiti with excellent results, and her latest, with the cover art depicting a fetching young Tussaud on the paths of Versailles, will attract many fans.
MADAME TUSSAUD gives a truly visceral and exciting inside view of a historical period that we all think we know plenty about, but really don't. Moran's work will entice and engage both readers who love historical fiction and those who love the history itself. I am sure there will be a movie version, and I look forward to seeing it!
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on March 28, 2011