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You may have been to one of Madame Tussaud’s wax museums, perhaps in New York or Las Vegas, or its original location, London. It’s likely that amid the lifelike renditions of presidents and monarchs, celebrities and criminals, you never spent much time thinking about the museum’s namesake. Edward Carey’s new novel, LITTLE, changes all of that, as he fleshes out (so to speak) the remarkable life story of Anne-Marie Grosholtz, who was born in 1761 in Switzerland and grew up to become Madame Tussaud.

Anne-Marie (known as “Little” for her diminutive stature) tells her life story in the first person, from the moment of her birth. She has a troubled childhood, losing both her father and mother in tragic circumstances at a young age. She then finds herself apprenticed after a fashion to a wax sculptor named Curtius, who (barely) makes his livelihood by sculpting body parts for study at the nearby hospital in Bern. However, when his debts catch up with him, Curtius follows a tip from French author Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who urges him to bring his talent for sculpting wax heads to Paris, where his art will be celebrated.

"Readers will find themselves captivated by this new perspective on the Revolutionary period in France and the remarkable story of one of its most fascinating characters."

Penniless and friendless, Curtius and Little arrive in Paris, where they are taken in by a fiercely grieving widow and her quiet son. All along, Little has become more and more skilled at Curtius’ art. Soon her talents are recognized in their own right (though the widow and Curtius fail to ever pay her an apprentice’s wages), and she is invited to become an art tutor to Princess Elisabeth, King Louis XVI’s youngest sister. There she develops a complicated relationship with the royal family and the court just as their relationship with the country as a whole is about to become more than just complicated.

Set before, during and after the French Revolution, LITTLE is crammed with cameos by real historical figures, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Jacques-Louis David to King Louis XVI himself. It’s also full of wonderfully imagined fictional characters, from the vindictive widow to the feral boy who lands on their doorstep to the widow’s son who breaks Little’s heart only to heal it again. The novel is almost Dickensian in its scope and its ability to portray the grotesqueness of human lives. Furthermore, it’s whimsically illustrated by Carey’s own pencil sketches.

But LITTLE is not just a fictionalized autobiography of its title character, as it offers readers meditations on the nature of reality, the definitions of art, and the untold stories of female creators whose names (unlike Madame Tussaud’s) are lost to history. Carey also considers at several points the nature of wax itself: malleable, able to mimic the peculiarities of human skin and features, and easily destroyed and remade into something else. There are perhaps obvious yet skillfully drawn parallels between these properties of wax and the historical period Carey recounts. At one point, the book reminds its audience of wax’s traditional role as a sealant for letters and documents: “Wax…is privacy. Wax seals letters. Wax keeps all the world’s words where they should be, until the right hands come to let them out.”

Readers will find themselves captivated by this new perspective on the Revolutionary period in France and the remarkable story of one of its most fascinating characters.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 26, 2018

by Edward Carey

  • Publication Date: October 22, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0525534334
  • ISBN-13: 9780525534334