In 1761, a tiny, odd-looking girl named Marie is born in a village in Switzerland. After the death of her parents, she is apprenticed to an eccentric wax sculptor and whisked off to the seamy streets of Paris, where they meet a domineering widow and her quiet, pale son. Together, they convert an abandoned monkey house into an exhibition hall for wax heads, and the spectacle becomes a sensation. As word of her artistic talent spreads, Marie is called to Versailles, where she tutors a princess and saves Marie Antoinette in childbirth. But outside the palace walls, Paris is roiling: The revolutionary mob is demanding heads, and . . . at the wax museum, heads are what they do.
Oh wow, there are some rare books which you know will be a benchmark for the rest of the year, and this is one of them. Eccentricity and wisdom makes for a dynamite duo, and this novel has both in spades. Its weirdness is used to reveal subtleties about how our world chugs along, and Edward Carey keeps it coming through his main character, Marie.
It'd be fair to call it a faction (blend of fact and fiction) since it's based on the life story of Madame Tussaud, told from her own fictional perspective. About time it was done, because she lived an incredible life. Marie Grosholtz was orphaned very young, and became an apprentice to Philip Curtius, a skilled wax sculpture, with whom she moved to Paris and helped set up a house of exhibits. In young adulthood she spent a stint at Versailles as art tutor to Princess Elisabeth, the younger sister of King Louis XVI. She also witnessed Marie Antoinette giving birth. And later during the French Revolution, her services were in high demand, as former celebrities were being guillotined in droves, and she was given only their heads to work with.
It was all so long ago, Carey had the right to use some poetic license to fill gaps, but he's done heaps of research and I'm awed by his version of Marie, and the endearing voice he's given her. She starts off as a premature, undersized newborn who survived despite the odds. 'A pig-headed, pocket-sized thing', which sets her up as a stubborn survivor all through the story. There was so much against her, including self-professed terrible looks and no extended family to look out for her. (Believe me, her likeness shown here is far more attractive than her description in the novel.) Yet Marie is left standing, often to her own surprise, long after some of the more privileged and pampered characters have passed on.
I believe her resilience is partly because of her unique way of taking life's twists and turns in her stride. Marie has the skill of noticing tiny details others overlook. She always describes her revelations in her own strange, slightly dark way, and accepts unfairness and injustice on the chin, because she latches onto the deeper reasons. About her nemesis, the Widow Picot, she says, 'Perhaps she needed someone beneath her to know for sure she wasn't on the bottom rung. Perhaps being cruel was proof of her success.'
I think there's a combination of true and made-up characters, and I won't forget Curtius' pushy, loud business partner, widow Charlotte Picot, and her pale, self-effacing son Edmond. Or Jacques Beauvisage, the street kid they hire who collects stories of murders. And they all live in a house which is believed to be haunted by the ghosts of former monkey occupants. I'll finish with a few examples of my favourite human nature lessons that emerge from Marie's experiences.
1) It dawns on the household that casting figures of murderers and villains is often an even greater draw card to the public than beloved heroes, because of human fascination with evil and depravity. This eye-opener prompts the widow to tell their good friend Mercier that his wax likeness will have to hit the trash, because, 'We accept only the very best and very worst heads. And yours, like the great multitudes', lies somewhere in between.' How true.
2) There's Marie's Eureka moment, when she twigs that her own creativity gives her an emotional tie to the work itself. 'There's the queen, but not only she, but Marie Grosholtz too, both alive in that head. The moment I realised that, I couldn't stop.'
3) But sadly, she discovers the tendency for people to want to believe they're greater than they really are. She knows that wax is a limited medium because it's too honest, while others, like portraiture, can get away with all sorts of flattering lies. She gets into hot water at the palace, when the royal family think she's judging them as pigs in a sty, while Marie didn't set out to do any such thing and knows her models are accurate.
There are great descriptions of pre-Revolutionary France, which I'm sure would've been authentic. 'Here, opposites mixed; flour-covered wig-makers' assistants beside coal carriers, thick with black dust.' I love the images such sentences create in our minds. And Edward Carey's art work and illustrations all through the book prove that there really is a place for pictures in adult novels. If I haven't convinced you all to read this book yet, it also has one of the best and most deserved punch in the face scenes. The entire story took Carey 15 years to write, and the quality shows.
This counts toward my 2019 European Reading Challenge, as a selection set in France.