Over the past few days, I read Michelle Moran’s MADAME TUSSAUD from cover to cover. An exciting story of the French Revolution presented from Marie Grosholtz’ point of view. (Marie ultimately becomes Madame Tussaud). Here’s my perspective on how it stacks up against the ingredients of successful historical fiction I developed several months ago.
Superb writing – Moran’s prose, pacing, emotional resonance, and plot twists are wonderful. In the first few chapters I was impressed with how each chapter gradually introduced the main characters and set the political and social context of that era. The author’s prose is straightforward; it flows easily and is descriptive without going over the top. During the height of the power struggle which brought so much sorrow to so many people, the pacing lagged a bit but that is my only complaint. Rating 8/10
Dramatic arc of historical events – we follow the buildup to revolution, its heady early days and then the descent into tyranny and terror at the hands of Robespierre and others who began their conflict with royalty wanting only the best for French citizens. Throughout, Marie Grosholtz and her family struggle to survive the tangled path of conflicting loyalties to both crown and the new French state until circumstances spin out of control. Moran’s use of present tense adds to the tension as though we are experiencing the events alongside Marie. Rating 9/10
Characters both heroic and human – the characters that stand out for me are Marie Grosholtz (Tussaud), Philippe Curtius, Henri Charles (the love interest for Marie) and Princesse Elizabeth (sister to King Louis XVI). Moran makes each of them totally believable and each a hero in their own way. Dramatic scenes with minor characters such as Marie Antoinette, Jean-Paul Marat, Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and the Marquis de Lafayette are very effective although occasionally I lost track of players with more minor roles. Rating 8/10
Immersed in time and place – Moran gives us superb descriptions of Versailles, court fashion, Paris streets and public executions. She brings to life the sights, sounds and smells of late 18th century Paris and offers small historical details to help us understand the customs of that time. She also introduces us into the world of wax making and the role that Salan de Cire plays in bringing news to ordinary citizens. Rating 8/10
Corridors of power – as events unfolds, the royal corridor of power gives way to revolution and the revolutionaries. When Marie goes to Versailles to tutor Princesse Elizabeth, we are shown how that world operates. Given that the novel is told from Marie Grosholtz’ point of view, Moran describes the happenings of the National Assembly, the Legislative Assembly and the Committee of Public Safety primarily through conversations with people who were present. This approach did not work as well for me. Rating 7/10
Authentic and educational – Moran places the reader at a time of great chaos and change and traces the events that occurred from 1788 to 1794. Her novel allows the reader to understand the hardships faced by ordinary French men and women, the privileges enjoyed by royalty and nobility, and the revolutionary zeal that overtook France and, in particular, Paris. She includes all major events that occurred from the rise of the Third Estate to the fall of Robespierre. At times the forward action slows with a bit too much history. Rating 8/10
Ageless themes – here are a few of the themes that jumped out for me: neighbours turning against neighbours, the corruption of power, the violence of an unleashed mob, the desire to live trumps morality, freedom and justice for the common man, the vast separation between rich and poor. Rating 8/10
High stakes – not only does every character fear for his or her life but a country’s future is at stake. Michelle Moran dramatizes these stakes extremely well. Rating 9/10
Sex and love – Henri Charles is in love with Marie Grosholtz, however, I felt that this attribute did not contribute as well as it might have to the novel’s success. Rating 6/10
Dysfunctional families – if we were to consider the country as a family, then France is highly dysfunctional in Madame Tussaud. Beyond that, we have the Duc D’Orleans willing to depose his cousin Louis XVI and the estrangement of Edmund, Marie’s eldest brother, from the Grosholtz family. Rating 9/10
A few other comments:
- the prologue is distracting and did not grab this reader’s attention.
- scenes concerning French fashion and court life give detail without being overdone
- immediacy of events associated with the French revolution comes through very well
- despite knowing which characters would not survive, I found myself hoping otherwise
- the ending left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Yes, the revolution was over but by then I was so attached to Marie/Madame Tussaud I wanted more about her struggle to rebuild her life.
Overall – 8/10
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.