In the author’s Afterword, Edward Carey explains that it took fifteen years for him to write this book. And it shows. This book is brilliantly crafted! Creatively conceived, with a quirky and distinctive writing style, and a fascinating glimpse into a downright grim period of French history. Awarded five stars on Goodreads.
At the center of the story is Anna Marie Grosholtz, who grows up to become Madame Tussaud of wax works fame. Most of us have heard of, if not visited, one of the museums that bear her name. And while it may not be high art, it’s lots of fun! LITTLE tells Tussaud’s plausible back story. And what Carey offers is nothing short of fascinating.
Anna Marie was born in 1761 in a small town to an impoverished family, who relocated to Paris shortly after her father’s death. Marie and her mother wind up moving to Paris to clean house for a strange physician who dabbles in wax works, as a method of studying human anatomy. And so, Marie begins learning this craft, until she becomes Dr. Curtius’s assistant as he transitions into making wax heads from castes of live people. For a time, these heads become a sort of status symbol to locals, creating a successful business for the doctor. And Marie winds up meeting some VERY prominent people of the era. Until, of course, the French Revolution begins and the wax work takes on a more grizzly and macabre nature – but no spoilers.
Marie’s life in Paris gives her a front-row seat to all the dramatic events unfolding in France — from the reigns of King Louis XV and Louis XVI, through the bloody French Revolution, and up to the appearance of Napoleon. Only after 1802, when Marie moves to London, does she become famous in her own right.
Marie’s story is dramatic on its own, though I don’t want to go into details and spoil your own discovery. She demonstrates great intelligence and determination which allow her to survive at a moment when so many around her do not. And Carey has created a whole collection of unique characters, beyond Dr. Curtius and Marie. There is a self-absorbed widow, who helps run the wax head business, and her son Edmond, who becomes one of Marie’s only friends.
Equally interesting to me is the not-so-flattering picture of Paris, nothing like the glittering city we know today. During Marie’s time, it is filled with dirt, disease, poverty, injustice, violence, and anger. And day-to-day survival is a real game of chance.
Another delightful feature are the author’s drawings, sprinkled throughout the novel, which add so much realism to the wax figures Curtius and Marie create. And provide images of the main characters too.
I highly recommend this imaginative piece of historical fiction for the rich, full, and complete picture it paints of this time period. AND of this plucky young girl. And for the skillful way Carey uses just the right amount of detail to bring everything vibrantly to life.
More about author and artist, Edward Carey.