Reviewed by Jenny
As Kathleen Benner Duble remarks in her author’s note (always my favorite part of any historical novel), Marie (‘Manon’) Tussaud had a fascinating life. Her mother was the housekeeper for a wax modeler named Philippe Curtius, who taught the young Marie his techniques. She created famous wax portraits of figures from Benjamin Franklin to Voltaire and spent time with the French royal family prior to the Revolution. In Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice, we witness the most remarkable years of Mme Tussaud’s career — her close association with the royal family and subsequent role as an enforced artistic propagandist for the Revolution — through the eyes of her fictional apprentice, a street kid named Celie with remarkable artistic powers.
At first, Celie and her closest friend, Algernon, are suspicious of Manon’s motives in taking them in. Both of them have lost people close to them in the years of starvation and hardship France has faced under Louis XVI, and they consider themselves staunch revolutionaries. When the first rumblings of protest come to Paris, Algernon joins up immediately — but Celie’s loyalties are divided, as she comes to know individual members of the nobility as people, rather than abstract constructs of oppression.
Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice is at its best when describing the everyday logistics of the waxmaking business. Celie has to learn each step in creating a wax person, from measuring the skull of the model to pasting on horsehair with beeswax. Meanwhile, she struggles to find a way to put her talents to their best use. Manon wants her to draw court scenes with an eye to creating wax tableaux, while Algernon demands that she produce propaganda drawings of courtly excesses to be included in revolutionary periodicals.
The book’s weakness is the romance: Celie is pining for Algernon from page one, while he remains still in mourning for his lost love, Julia. Algernon becomes a revolutionary, with all of the excesses that entails: when Celie comes to him for aid, he’s cold and unwilling to assist her. In a sudden turnabout towards the end of the book, he decides not to be terrible after all, and Celie forgives him immediately even though he was definitely implicated in the deaths of people she knew and liked, and then they escape from France together, making out on a boat. The book assumes the reader’s delight at this development, but I did not find Algernon to be a viable romantic partner. After all the, you know, guillotining.
Head over here to read my interview with Kathleen Benner Duble about her interest in Madame Tussaud, her research process, and the projects she’s working on now!
Jenny blogs at Reading the End.
Kathleen Benner Duble, Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice (Alma Books: Surrey, 2014). 9781846883811, 225 pp., paperback.