This 2011 novel by Michelle Moran is a fictionalized biography of Marie Grosholtz, the woman whose wax models of famous individuals in eighteenth century France evolved into the many wax museums throughout the world who still bear her name.
The novel begins on the eve of the French revolution as Marie, her “uncle” Phillipe Curtius, and her mother Anna run the Salon de Cire, a popular attraction for its wax depictions of royalty, politicians, and international celebrities. A shrewd businesswoman, Marie is her uncle’s best pupil both artistically and financially. Their home becomes a popular gathering place for such luminaries as Robespierre, Marat, Lafayette, and Camille Desmoulins, all of whom favor revolution against the French monarchs Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Meanwhile, Marie’s artistic reputation has reached Madame Elisabeth, the king’s sister, which earns Marie a place at Montreuil to tutor the pious French princess in the art of wax modeling. Marie has a front row seat to see all that divides the monarchs from their subjects. Rather than selfish tyrants, Marie finds the royals to be caring, charitable, and religious if hopelessly naive, and she wonders why the public feels justified in blaming them for bad harvests. She watches as Robespierre decries tyrants and then eventually becomes one himself, as new liberties granted by the Committee for Public Safety keep the public as virtual prisoners, and how the revolutionaries become despots far worse than any they unseated.
Marie walks on a razor’s edge, between the royal family she has come to know and respect and the revolutionary commoners who support her thriving business. As the revolution gains momentum, she must walk that line carefully, as anyone suspected of harboring royalist sympathies meets the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. With three brothers in the Swiss Guards, entrusted with protecting the king, and her uncle serving in the new regime’s military, she becomes a survivalist, doing whatever necessary, including making death masks of newly executed traitors, to stay alive.
This is a moving tale. Not only do we get a glimpse inside the life of a remarkable historical figure – a keen businesswoman who allowed no war, prison, or failed marriage to deter her rise to the top – we also get an inside look into the complexities of the revolution from a perspective that was close to both the crown and those who overthrew it. This is a more commonsense, realistic perspective from someone inside the fray. Ms. Moran has a very terse, blunt writing style that propels the plot onward even when the misery drags on and all seems lost. A great read!
Amazon link for the book is here.