Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
In 1789, with the starving French people on the brink of revolution, orphaned Celie Rosseau, an amazing artist and a very clever thief, runs wild with her protector, Algernon, trying to join the idealistic freedom fighters of Paris. But when she is caught stealing from none other than the king’s brother and the lady from the waxworks, Celie must use her drawing talent to buy her own freedom or die for her crimes. Forced to work for Madame Tussaud inside the opulent walls that surround Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Celie is shocked to find that the very people she imagined to be monsters actually treat her with kindness. But the thunder of revolution still rolls outside the gates, and Celie is torn between the cause of the poor and the safety of the rich. When the moment of truth arrives, will she turn on Madame Tussaud or betray the boy she loves? From the hidden garrets of the starving poor to the jeweled halls of Versailles, “Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice” is a sweeping story of danger, intrigue, and young love, set against one of the most dramatic moments in history.
When it comes to historical fiction of any stripe there’s a very real danger that all authors face: that they will inscribe modern mores and beliefs on characters who likely would not hold them if they were true to the time period. I believe that Benner Duble has fallen into this trap.
Celie is a illiterate peasant girl. Her father was killed by a noble-man for trespassing on his lands. As a result of her father’s death, her mother and brother starve when all they have harvested is sent to the Comte to his fees and she flees to Paris. She goes both for revenge and
“…determined to join the group of men and women who wanted to change the plight of the poor in this country, to stop those with less form being subjected to the whims of the wealthy. I resolved to find that group and become one of them.”
This girl is starving and barely making ends meet by thieving and you expected to believe her (many repeated) claims that she wants to help the poor? Perhaps if time was spent developing her character further before getting into the action (and at a paltry 224 pages she would have had plenty of room to do so) I might be more inclined that she was so kindhearted. Or, maybe my disbelief comes from the fact that this peasant girl speaks (see above) and almost acts like someone with a great education. She firmly believes that all can be solved by talking and is genuinely shocked when violence breaks out. It comes off as incredibly naive, and perhaps more fitting of a member of the bourgeoisie or other educated class, not someone of her status.
My other problem is how Celie’s development (what passes for it anyway) is handled. She is rightly terrified and disgusted of the horrors she is subjected to witness and even quite clearly states she is done with revenge, but yet at the very end of the book, before blood has even dried on dirt, she is suddenly dreaming of vengeance once more. Say what? She spends a good chunk of the book absolutely hating what the Revolution has turned into, arguing with her boyfriend over the acts that he oversees and then suddenly poof! All gone. We’re safe and so now we can take our non-lethal revenge against this guy. It’s like whiplash. I get that she hates the guy (and not unfairly so) but at least can she have time to get over the trauma of the past few weeks first?
Anyway, aside from that issue, if you’re really looking to learn what Madame Tussaud was like, this isn’t the place to look. We get a tour of the wax-works and the like, but we really don’t spend much time there. It makes up a pretty minor part of the plot.
Finally, the author sprinkles in random French phrases like “Algernon had come up with a plan and it was très brillant.” it was inconsistently done and it was just kind of annoying. It’s a story set in France. Of course they’re speaking French! Readers don’t need that reminder. It’s a stylistic quirk I’ve seen pop up in other books and I wish writers would stop it.
This book is a fast little read and I do think that the author did a good job conveying the swiftness of events and horror or the whole affair. That said, character development was lacking all around and I think the book could have been so much more had she taken the time to round out all of her characters.
Verdict: Borrow It