This fictionalized biography of Madame Tussaud (448 pages) was published in October of 2018 by Riverhead Books. The book takes you to 18th-century Paris. Melissa read Little and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.
This is the (mostly) true story of a tiny girl who grew up to be the diminutive but fierce Madame Tussaud, she of wax museum fame. Her story begins in a Swiss village and takes us to the Monkey House in Paris, the Palace of Versailles, and a prison during the French Revolution — all in the company of uncanny figures made of wax.
We know from the start that this put-upon child (think Jane Eyre or Anne Shirley: bright, downtrodden, afraid, but fiery) will find fame and success. So this darkly humorous, almost-fairy tale is a twisty exploration of the why and the how.
After her parents’ deaths, Marie, a.k.a., Little, is apprenticed to a wax sculptor in Paris. The streets are muddy. The house creeks and is always cold. And her adopted ‘family’ is dominated by a tyrannical widow determined to exclude Little from all human comforts and affection.
As Little and her guardian, the real-life physician and wax sculptor Dr. Philippe Curtius, gain notoriety for their waxworks, she finds herself among famous Parisians, including the author Louis-Sébastien Mercier and Princess Elizabeth, the sister of Louis XVI. For a brief, glowing moment, Little is on her way to being the toast of the town.
But fortunes change quickly when one is associated with a royal court. And soon, Little finds herself back in the muck of the hoi polloi.
Like an Edward Gorey illustration transformed into a novel, this is a delightfully macabre romp through 18th-century Paris. What else could it be when severed heads, both waxen and fleshy, play such a prominent role in the plot?
Little is a heroine to root for. Her life’s grim and grimy fairy tale is an inspiring one that shows what happens when a miniature person embodies a big talent and an outsized dose of grit.
For this is true: Curtius, in his great hall, has abolished privilege! Curtius has dismissed all laws of etiquette. Curtius has done away with class. Where else in the world might a pauper approach a king? Might the mediocre touch genius? Might ugliness draw close — without shame — to beauty? The Cabinet is the only place. — Edward Carey
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