Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

Madame Tussaud by Michelle MoranOver 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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Tracy Chevalier – Remarkable Creatures

I’m going to try something different. A few posts ago, I wrote about the ten essential ingredients for successful historical fiction. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier is the first novel I’ve finished reading since that post. Chevalier was in the top historical fiction authors list so, why not rank her story against the list of essential ingredients?

Like a teacher marking the first exam of many or a judge ranking the first of many glorious dives, I will probably err on the side of being critical rather than generous. My apologies to the author.

Remarkable Creatures is the story of Mary Anning who has a unique gift: ‘the eye’ to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton … she sets the religious community on edge, the townspeople to gossip – and the scientific world alight with both admiration and controversy. Prickly Elizabeth Philpot … becomes Mary Anning’s unlikely champion and friend, and together they forge a path to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century.

(1) superb writing – Chevalier’s prose is a delight but I found her pacing too leisurely although one could argue that the pacing suits a character of quiet gentility like Elizabeth Philpot and the seaside town of Lyme Regis in the 19th century. The dialogue works very well, a great blend of speech patterns that identify the time and circumstances of various characters without weighing the story down in colloquial phrases and speech patterns. In terms of emotional resonance, I identified with Elizabeth’s desire to make a life for herself and her willingness to be unconventional, and empathized with Mary Anning’s passion for fossil hunting and her fierce drive to help support her family. The plot twists and turns although the story remains subdued. 7/10

(2) dramatic arc of historical events – Chevalier structures the story by tracing the timeline of Anning’s major finds using alternating first person narratives of her main characters, Elizabeth and Mary. While I found each voice engaging, ultimately the calm unfolding of this first-person narrative undermines the drama of discoveries that must have turned the scientific and religious world upside down. For me, tension was missing. 6/10

(3) characters both heroic and human – In my opinion, Chevalier gets top marks for her portrayal of the two main characters and through their eyes, other characters such as Colonel Birch, William Buckland, Elizabeth’s sisters and Mary’s mother Molly also come alive. 9/10

(4) immersed in time and place – every historical novel comes with expectations of the time in which it is written. As a purchaser, one expects to be transported to another world and like a hypnotist’s subject I was ready to dwell in the early 19th century the moment I opened Remarkable Creatures. On page 9, this sentence was the compelling step back in time: “Once our brother married there would be neither the place nor the money for us all to live at Red Lion Square.” Descriptions of Elizabeth’s brother John, Lyme Regis, the Assembly halls and Margaret’s one chance to capture a husband solidified the era for me and Chevalier held all senses firmly in that period. 8/10

“The bathing machine, a little closet on a cart, had been pulled far out into the water to give her privacy.”

“And they find Bishop Ussher’s calculation of the world’s age as six thousand years comforting rather than limiting and a little absurd.”

Describing a salve made by Elizabeth’s sister Margaret, “made of beeswax, turpentine, lavender, and yarrow.”

“I expect your ichthyosaurus has a place in Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being.”

(5) corridors of power – Chevalier writes convincingly of the small town minister who is scandalized over Elizabeth Philpot’s notions that God’s creations might have become extinct, science battling religion. She also positions the leaders of England’s Geological Society and noted French naturalist and zoologist, Baron Georges Cuvier, as masters of their domains of power in evolving scientific thought. Another corridor of power is that of gender in the early 19th century. Men had all the power, brother over sister, husband over wife, even Philpot’s young nephew has more power than Elizabeth to enter the premises of the Geological Society at a crucial point in the novel. 7/10

“Besides which Mary Anning is a female. She is a spare part.”

“God in his infinite wisdom has peppered this world with mysteries for men to solve.”

(6) authentic and educational – I now know a lot about fossils, fossil hunting, and the debates prompted by Mary Anning’s discoveries. Remarkable Creatures also illuminates the prejudices of the times – the role of women, the spinster’s lot in life, country versus city, social classes and pecking order. Chevalier brings these details out seamlessly but without interfering with the story’s flow. Through Mary’s discoveries and Elizabeth’s learning the reader also learns. What could be dull, scientific information is anything but. 8/10

“Mr. Buckland handed me the blade, then sat back to watch me scrape along one of the ribs, freeing and brushing away the limestone that clung to it. Slowly a clear line emerged, and because I went at it carefully, the rib weren’t nicked or scored, but smooth and whole.”

“… quarrymen and not considered suitable for any but the most desperate women.”

(7) ageless themes – struggling out of poverty, the destructive power of jealousy, standing up for what you believe in and for people who are powerless, finding one’s identity, dealing with fame, the understanding that freedom has its price. These themes ring out with conviction. 8/10

Elizabeth: “So be it. A woman’s life is always a compromise.”

Mary: “She had too openly flouted the rules of what was expected from a girl in her position.”

(8) high stakes – reputation, friendship and love are at stake in the story. Significant matters although I sensed the outcomes early on which in my mind detracts from the impact. The most compelling matter is the friendship between Elizabeth and Mary. 6/10

In Mary’s voice: “It seemed whenever I found something, I lost something else. I found an ichthyosaurus and lost Fanny. I found Colonel Birch and lost Miss Elizabeth. I found fame and lost …”

(9) sex and love – the only significant male/female relationship is that of Mary and Colonel Birch. Chevalier renders it with charm, creating tension in the telling and a strong sense of poignancy in the conclusion. 7/10

“There I found out that lightning can come from deep inside the body.”

(10) dysfunctional families – the families of Mary and Elizabeth are not dysfunctional, although they operate in ways that modern readers might find unusual. From my perspective, minimal drama emerged from the family dynamics. 5/10

While I enjoyed the story, the characters and Tracy Chevalier’s writing, Remarkable Creatures is a quiet book and not a compelling page-turner. But then, of course, this is only my opinion.

An interesting exercise. What do you think?