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Little by Edward Carey

A mix of very quirky characters and a superbly innocent voice make Little an intriguing look at a famous, yet little-known, historical figure.

Title: Little
Author: Edward Carey
Publish Date: October 23rd, 2018 by Riverhead Books
Genre: Historical fiction
Narrator: Jayne Entwistle
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s DescriptionThe wry, macabre, unforgettable tale of an ambitious orphan in Revolutionary Paris, befriended by royalty and radicals, who transforms herself into the legendary Madame Tussaud.

In 1761, a tiny, odd-looking girl named Marie is born in a village in Switzerland. After the death of her parents, she is apprenticed to an eccentric wax sculptor and whisked off to the seamy streets of Paris, where they meet a domineering widow and her quiet, pale son. Together, they convert an abandoned monkey house into an exhibition hall for wax heads, and the spectacle becomes a sensation. As word of her artistic talent spreads, Marie is called to Versailles, where she tutors a princess and saves Marie Antoinette in childbirth. But outside the palace walls, Paris is roiling: The revolutionary mob is demanding heads, and . . . at the wax museum, heads are what they do.

In the tradition of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Edward Carey’s Little is a darkly endearing cavalcade of a novel–a story of art, class, determination, and how we hold on to what we love.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Invested Ivana says…

A while ago, Agent Annie suggested I might like the book Little, a fictional-yet-apparently-accurate-in-facts history of Madame Tussaud, of wax museum fame. Her recommendation was spot on. Little, particularly the audio version, is spectacular!

We meet Marie, who will eventually become Madame Tussaud, as a small child in Switzerland whose family is struggling after her father sustains a serious injury in the military. After her father’s death, her mother becomes housekeeper to a professor and then dies, leaving Marie to be buffeted on the winds of fate for the majority of her remaining life.

There are a couple of things I find fascinating about how this story is written. First, the tone of the story is so quirky-gothic. It feels similar to, though weightier than, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Addams Family, or the card game Gloom. Every character has some eccentric, quirky feature, such as the professor who is in love with bones, the Paris historian who never takes off his shoes, Marie’s childhood friend who comes to believe he is a dresser’s dummy, or the street urchin who behaves like the stray dogs who raised him. The eccentricities of each character are fascinating and the quirky tone of the story is very compelling, assuming quirky and dark is your thing. From a historical perspective, this tone also does a great job of characterizing the experience of the common citizen caught up in the craziness of the French Revolution.

Second, Marie’s voice, which we first hear as a child, retains that same child-like, innocent quality for the whole book. Not only her “voice,” as in a writing style, but also her literal voice, provided by narrator Jayne Entwistle, is absolutely perfect for the character and tone of the book. Particularly toward the end of the book, the reader witnesses Marie mature into an adult in terms of her actions and decisions, but her “voice” continues to be that of an innocent child, caught up in the machinations of fate, war, and people who have more power than she does.

This is a book I will listen to again, probably more than once. There is a lot to digest in terms of history and the way the writing style is both fun and yet layered to communicate the dynamics of power and absurdity of war and politics. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and I can’t recommend it enough.

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