Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly

by f

Since I mentioned I couldn’t write book reviews, I’ve been doing nothing but writing book reviews. I’m going to crosspost this with another blog. I won’t make that a common thing. Obviously I don’t want my identity catching up with me, but this was too much to resist. Besides, it took me forever to write; I might as well get my bang for my buck.


As soon as I saw Revolution, I knew I had to buy it. There’s something haunting about both young women featured on the cover. (Whomever the cover artist was, they did a bang-up job.) Jennifer Donnelly previous YA novel, Northern Lights,  was based on the same real-life events that inspired Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.  Donnelly’s prose prose is very emotional and rich. I had high expectations for Revolution as a result, and the first few pages — hastily glimpsed at the Union Square Barnes and Nobles — didn’t disappoint.

Revolution’s protagonist is a damaged young woman, Andi.  Threatened with expulsion after an uninspired performance at her fancy-pants Brooklyn private school, her absentee father comes home from Paris to take her back there with him. He plans to supervise Andi as she writes her senior thesis, the one thing that stands between her and total scholastic ruin. She plans to write about the (fictional) French guitarist Mahlerbeau, with an emphasis on his connection to contemporary music.

Andi stays her father’s friend, G, in his Parisian loft. G, a historian, asks Andi’s father to investigate an urn he believes might contain the heart of King Louis XVI’s son, Louis Charles.

As Andi explores G’s loft, she finds two treasures: a priceless guitar, and a locked box containing a two-hundred-year-old diary.  The diary belongs to seventeen-year-old Alexandrine Paradis, an actress suddenly thrust into the politics of the revolution and royalty. From the moment Andi starts reading the diary, she feels a deep bond for its author.  The consequences of her find runs deep, and compose most of what is so wonderful about this novel.

During Revolution’s best moments, we experience Andi’s wonder as she connects to Alexandrine. Most of the novel is built around connections; the connection Andi lost when her brother died and her mother went insane; the connection she never had with her distant father, the bond she shares with the dreamy Virgil, a French-Tunisian musician who drives cabs for a living and lives in the rough baneliue.

At first the mystery surrounding Mahlerbeau’s identity was a little thin for me and seemed tangential. Her musicality, however, is an intrinsic part of Andi, so I gave Donnelly the benefit of the doubt. Music is Andi’s emotional salvation. This is expressed throughout. Her relationships and her decisions are governed by her love for music. Or beauty, in music.

This novel loves beauty. So much about this novel is beautiful.

I love the platonic relationship between Andi and her best friend Vijay. Most young adult novels don’t bother with platonic opposite-sex pairings, and theirs works very well.  Also magnificent is the relationship between Andi and Virgil.  They are both creatures of tough lives — Andi is depressed in spite of privilege and Virgil is more upbeat even in his poorer circumstances. Their relationship moves forward at a feverish but somehow believable clip.  They discuss their favorite music, an eclectic mix of rock, pop, and classical. They even sing to each other over the phone. Both Andi and Virgil seek something from one another, but it isn’t the usual thing, and it’s a delicate, tender part of the richer story.

Donnelly’s parallels between Andi’s brother and the affection Alexandrine grows to feel for the young Louis Charles is very well done. And as she comes to the close of Alexandrine’s story — the diary ends in the middle of a last, heartbreaking sentence — Andi finds that she needs to know more. Does Alexandrine manage to save the young prince from certain death? Does she escape it?

The more Andi tries to find out, the further she finds herself detached from her surroundings. She finds herself in revolutionary Paris after a trip to the catacombs. I like to think that this development, which unearths Mahlerbeau’s true identity, is a mind-trip. This chemical-induced fiction within the story would prove Alexandrine’s point:

(“All History is Fiction” are Alexandrine’s first words.)

That amazing trip to the past is a strange but virtuosic coda to the book. By the end, Alexandrine and Andi’s parallel realizations converge as they realize that they each must face the brutality of their worlds. We know the last thing Alexandrine meant to say:

“It goes on, this world, stupid and brutal.
But I do not.
I do not.”

Just read this book. Great pacing, wonderful characters, and a worthy addition to YA canon.

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