This historical novel explores Revolutionary Paris through the fictionalized eyes of the orphan who grew up to become Madame Tussaud.
Born in a little Alsatian village in 1761, Anne Marie Grosholtz—called Marie—inherits her mother’s large Roman nose, her father’s large, upturned chin, and little else. Marie’s widowed mother dies soon after taking a job as housekeeper to Doctor Curtius, a physician who makes wax models of organs and body parts. Little Marie moves to Paris with Curtius, where he opens a wax museum and trains her as his assistant. There, they sculpt first the heads of philosophes, then famous murderers, and eventually victims of the guillotine. (Those make for much more portable models, being detached from their bodies.) Marie’s fortunes rise and fall with the politics of the era: She becomes an art tutor to Louis XVI’s sister Elisabeth, then spends a stint in the Carmes Prison (where she shares a cell with the future Josephine Bonaparte). Carey (Lungdon, 2015, etc.) channels the ghosts of Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, and the Brothers Grimm to tell Marie’s tale, populating it with grotesques and horrors worthy of Madame Tussaud’s celebrated wax museum. Little drawings punctuate the text, like Boz’s cartoons in Dickens’ books; Carey’s rumination on wax recalls Dickens’ on dust. In Carey’s hands, life blurs with death, nature with artifice; his objects seem as animated as people while his people can appear as fragile and impotent as objects. Dolls, houses, carts, furniture, tailors’ dummies, and, of course, waxworks have human feelings: “I had never before considered that carriage clocks could be disapproving, nor had I supposed a candelabra might resent lighting me. I had never stepped upon a carpet that did not wish me there, nor felt the enmity of a marble mantelpiece. Nor had I come upon a gold-braided stool whose fat little feet seemed aimed at my ankles. Not before I entered this room.” Curtius “seemed made of rods, of broom handles, of great lengths.” This artful anthropomorphism (and its opposite) perfectly suits a novel about that most lifelike medium of sculpture, wax—and its most famous modeler.
A quirky, compelling story that deepens into a meditation on mortality and art.