Little: A Novel

Little: A Novel

by Edward Carey

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Overview

"An amazing achievement. . . A compulsively readable novel, so canny and weird and surfeited with the reality of human capacity and ingenuity that I am stymied for comparison. Dickens and David Lynch? Defoe meets Margaret Atwood? Judge for yourself." —Gregory Maguire, New York Times- bestselling author of Wicked

The 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525534334
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/22/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 327,674
Product dimensions: 5.17(w) x 8.01(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Edward Carey is a novelist, visual artist, and playwright. Carey’s previous novels include Observatory Mansions and Alva & Irva, and his acclaimed series for young adults, the Iremonger Trilogy, earned best-of-the-year recognition from The New York Times Book Review, NPR, and other venues. Born in England, he now teaches at the University of Texas in Austin, where he lives with his wife, the author Elizabeth McCracken, and their family.

Read an Excerpt

In which I am born and in which I describe my mother and father.

In the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact year in which the melody for "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" was first published, in that very year, which is to say 1761, whilst in the city of Paris people at their salons told tales of beasts in castles and men with blue beards and beauties that would not wake and cats in boots and slippers made of glass and youngest children with tufts in their hair and daughters wrapped in donkey skin, and whilst in London people at their clubs discussed the coronation of King George III and Queen Charlotte: many miles away from all this activity, in a small village in Alsace, in the presence of a ruddy midwife, two village maids, and a terrified mother, was born a certain undersized baby.

Anne Marie Grosholtz was the name given to that hurriedly christened child, though I would be referred to simply as Marie. I was not much bigger, at first, than the size of my mother's little hands put together, and I was not expected to live very long. And yet, after I survived my first night, I went on, despite contrary predictions, to breathe through my first week. After that my heart still kept time, without interruption, throughout my first month. Pigheaded, pocket-sized thing.

My lonely mother was eighteen years old at my birth, a small woman, a little under five foot, marked by being the daughter of a priest. This priest, my grandfather, made a widower by smallpox, had been a very strict man, a fury in black cloth, who never let his daughter out of his sight. After he died, my mother's life changed. Mother began to meet people, villagers who called upon her, and among them was a soldier. This soldier, a bachelor somewhat beyond the customary age, possessing a somber temperament brought on by witnessing so many appalling things and losing so many soldier friends, took a fancy to Mother; he thought they could be happy, so to speak, being sad together. Her name was Anna-Maria Waltner. His name was Joseph Georg Grosholtz. They were married. My mother and my father. Here was loving and here was joy.

My mother had a large nose, in the Roman style. My father, I believe, had a strong chin that pointed a little upward. That chin and that nose, it seems, fitted together. After a little while, however, Father's furlough was over, and he returned to war. Mother's nose and Father's chin had known each other for three weeks.

To begin with, for always, there was love. The love my father and mother had for each other was forever present on my face. I was born with both the Waltner nose and the Grosholtz chin. Each attribute was a noteworthy thing on its own, and nicely gave character to the faces of those two families; combined, the result was a little ungainly, as if I were showing more flesh than was my personal due. Children will grow how they will. Some distinguish themselves as prodigies of hair growth, or cut teeth at a wonderfully young age; some are freckled all over; others arrive so pale that their white nakedness is a shock to all who witness it. I nosed and chinned my way into life. I was, certainly, unaware then of what extraordinary bodies I should come to know, of what vast buildings I would inhabit, of what bloody events I would find myself trapped within, and yet, it seems to me, my nose and my chin already had some inkling of it all. Nose and chin, such an armor for life. Nose and chin, such companions.

Since girls of my stamp were not schooled, it was Mother who gave me education through God. The Bible was my primer. Elsewise, I fetched in logs, looked for kindling in the woods, washed plates and clothes, cut vegetables, fetched meat. I swept. I cleaned. I carried. I was always busy. Mother taught me industry. If my mother was busy, she was happy; it was when she stopped that uncertainty caught up with her, only to be dispelled by some new activity. She was constantly in motion, and movement suited her well.

"Discover," she would say, "what you can do. You'll always find something. One day your father will return, and he'll see what a good and useful child you are."

"Thank you, Mother. I shall be most useful, I do wish it."

"What a creature you are!"

"Am I? A creature?"

"Yes, my own little creature."

Mother brushed my hair with extraordinary vigor. Sometimes she touched my cheek or patted my bonnet. She was probably not very beautiful, but I thought her so. She had a small mole just beneath one of her eyelids. I wish I could remember her smile. I do know she had one.

By the age of five I had grown to the height of the old dog in the house next to ours. Later I would be the height of doorknobs, which I liked to rub. Later still, and here I would stop, I would be the height of many people's hearts. Women observing me in the village were sometimes heard to mutter, as they kissed me, "Finding a husband will not be easy."

On my fifth birthday, my dear mother gave me a doll. This was Marta. I named her myself. I knew her little body, about a sixth the size of my own; I learned it entirely as I moved it about, sometimes roughly, sometimes with great tenderness. She came to me naked and without a face. She was a collection of seven wooden pegs, which could be assembled in a certain order to roughly resemble the human figure. Marta, save my mother, was my first intimate connection with the world; I was never without her. We were happy together: Mother, Marta, and me.

Reading Group Guide

1. Illustrations are a big part of how Marie tells her story. How did that affect your reading experience? Did the illustrations match what you imagined? Did they change your perception of any of the characters? What do Marie’s artistic choices tell us about her as a character?

2. “Just as the fibula is to the tibia: we are connected. You and I,” Curtius tells Marie. Besides their interest in anatomy and wax, what qualities do Marie and Curtius share? Do they approach relationships similarly? How about rejection?

3. Most of Little takes place before and during the French Revolution. What does Marie’s stint at Versailles suggest about the monarchy and aristocracy in France? How do you think Marie’s position working for Elisabeth compared to her position in the Monkey House?

4. “I am loved! I am!” Marie cries at one point in the book; she spends much of the story wishing both to find love and to be valued. After she and Edmond get together, is her wish fulfilled? Does being loved change her life? Before that point, in what ways does Marie seek affection? Do the characters Marie loves—Curtius, Edmond, Elisabeth—reciprocate that love?

5. Curtius calls the wax he works with the “greatest of detail collectors, finest of imitators, most honest of matters.” Is wax always honest? How does the book use waxworks to reflect on memory keeping and representation?

6. Curtius and Marie work with wax; Edmond and the widow work with cloth; even the king works with locks. How are work and craftsmanship portrayed in the book? What does it mean to each character, and how much does it factor into their sense of identity? What did you make of Marie’s insistence on getting paid for her work?

7. When Curtius mounts a wax figure of the murderer Desrues, the widow complains that “it is as if we celebrate what he did.” When Edmond returns from the printworks, all he can utter are poster slogans. What does Marie’s story have to tell us about the early days of media culture?

8. The Widow Picot is one of Little’s greatest antagonists, but she is also a complicated person. What was your impression of the widow when she first appears, and how did it change? What did you make of her obsessions with her son, the mannequin of her husband, and Curtius? How does the widow’s relationship with grief affect her behavior toward others? Did you find her behavior more domineering and abusive, or anxious and protective?

9. Marie, Curtius, the widow, and Edmund move into the Monkey House, which formerly used to house real monkeys. What animal characteristics do the family members display? When Jacques Beauvisage moves into the house, what beliefs about human and animal behavior does he evoke? Does his appearance or behavior make him less worthy of affection? Is he irretrievably wild, or does he have the potential to change?

10. Some readers may know from the start that Marie grows up to be Madame Tussaud, whose wax museum is still an international sensation today. Others may realize this only at the end of the novel. Did this come as a surprise, and if so, how did it affect your perception of Marie’s story? What can we learn from the legacy of a life that was once seen as small and valueless?

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