When Madame Tussaud’s sold in 2005 to an investment firm owned by the government of Dubai for about $1.5 billion, it was hard not to feel sad for the woman whose name is on the awning. Born in Strasbourg, France, nearly killed during the French Revolution, Marie Grosholtz came a long way from a childhood of deep poverty before becoming a name in lights.
But never would she see the scale of fortune her museum brought in. The popularity of her artwork had turned gazing at likenesses of the powerful and notorious into a tourist sport and prefigured the golden age of celebrity. But the woman herself remains, to a large degree, a mystery.
That is until now. “Little,’’ Edward Carey’s marvelous, weird, and vividly imagined new novel, will probably send scores of visitors back to her showrooms across the world to see her likeness.
Opening in 1761, the year Marie was born, the book molds the life of our heroine before our very eyes. Orphaned by seven (her father killed in war and her mother by her own hand), Marie is left in the care of the Swiss wax modeler and physician Philippe Curtius who creates body parts for medical research.
A diminutive, odd-looking child Marie is eventually dubbed Little, “a little explanation. A little protest. A little insult. In any case, a little something.’’
Later the pair will move to Paris on the brink of Revolution where they will garner attention for their wax busts of the famous and infamous.
Coloring in areas of her childhood, romantic affairs, and peripatetic travels across Europe in the tumultuous and bloody late 18th century and beyond, Carey spins a gothic tale of an artist exploited, of a woman who yearned for and demonstrated a capacity for love.
“Love,” says Marie’s mentor, Curtius, after his own partner has been laid low by violence in France, “What is it? To see that on a face. To capture that in wax. It would be something.”
If anyone is equipped to wade into the metaphysics of this art “between life and death’’ it’s Carey. He writes like a man in a black cape, one with a knack at rendering the dark shadows death casts on daily life. His debut novel, “Observatory Mansions,’’ conjured a clan of misfits living in a rundown apartment block with the panache of a more narrative-based Edward Gorey.
“Little’’ is an equally gothic historical tale. Bending some of the known facts about Madame Tussaud, Carey swiftly checks off the genre’s components. What could be gloomier than growing up the ward of a frustrated artist who stuffs his studio full of random body parts.
One of the pleasures of gothic is how it abuses us for our hope — making it perhaps the most current of all the genres now. Carey plays these roller-coasters of emotion masterfully. For a time, Marie and her master are a tight duo, but when they flee debts on a coach to Paris all that changes.
They take up rooms with a tailor’s widow who effectively banishes her and degrades the girl at every step. Indominatable, Marie finds solace in the widow’s son, a pale, delicate boy who suffers in the stringency of a household made by needle. Day by day, Marie falls in love — then the widow forbids them from spending time together.
Marie is a profoundly humane heroine — curious and full of voice, but also desperate to understand the people around her. Throughout the book, she responds to cruelty by directing kindness at another. When fortunes improve and the widow marries her son off, Marie turns her attention to a feral local boy who sleeps on the steps of their exhibit hall/house in Paris, taming him into a storyteller and guardsman.
Later, she’s brought into the court to tutor King Louis XVI’s sister, Elisabeth, where the now teenaged Marie is made to sleep in a cupboard. She begins sculpting heads of the royal family by candlelight, as if determined to fathom the world she finds herself in, rather than reduce it to a collection of villains. That too — that instinct — can be called love.
If there’s any criticism one can apply to “Little,” it’s that it keeps its heroine little for too long. Marie lived to be nearly 90, but 90 percent of this book takes place in the early stages of her life, before she married (Tussaud was her married name) and moved to England and gradually built the Baker Street museum that brought her fame.
Still, this is a fantastic winter tale, a big, patient read full of reversals of fortune and fabulous glimpses of a time not unlike our own when a new technology of likeness brought the giants of media and politics closer than ever, with its promises of a kind of immortality. Subtly, without calling attention to it, Carey has woven a beautiful parable about the power of that proximity. How we rage to bring the world above and around us down to our size, and yet when we do, the big questions remain: How and who to love? How to be decent? How to be fair?
By Edward Carey
Riverhead, 436 pp., illlustrated, $27
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John Freeman is editor of Freeman’s, the latest issue of which is themed to power. His most recent book is Maps, a collection of poems.