The Plot: Andi Alpers, a senior, doesn’t belong anywhere and doesn’t care. After her brother’s death two years ago, her world fell apart. Her father, a Nobel winning scientist, always a worhaholic, moved out. Her mother’s grief registers itself in painting portraits of her dead son over and over. Andi’s about to be expelled from her expensive, prestigious private school but she doesn’t care. All Andi cares about her guitar and losing herself in her music with the occasional help of prescription drugs and a warm body.
Her father comes back into her life in “take charge, I can fix this” mode, as if Andi and her mother were another thing on his “to do” list. Her mother gets sent to a hospital and Andi is brought to Paris for her winter break, where her father can supervise her work on her ignored senior thesis. In Paris, Andi discovers the late eighteenth century diary of a teenage girl, Alexandrine Paradis, who was caught up in the French Revolution. Andi is captivated by the words of a girl her age. Twin stories unfold: Andi’s in the present day, Alex’s in the past, until the stories come together in a powerful ending that offers grace in a dark world.
The Good: Revolution is stunning.
The first section of the book, “Hell,” has an epigram from Dante: “And to a place I come where nothing shines.” Nothing shines in Andi’s life. Revolution begins with Andi’s privileged classmates (“a diplomat’s daughter,” “a movie star’s kid”) having a party. From the start, the connection is made between present day and the French Revolution with haves and have nots, an upper-class and underclass.
Andi’s grief over her younger brother’s death seeps through every page, every sentence, every act: “…and then I play. For hours. I play until my fingertips are raw. Until I rip a nail and bleed on the strings. Until my hands hurt so bad I forget my heart does.” Her grief is fueled by guilt for her role in her brother’s death as well as the breaking down of her family. “Rain washed away the blood long ago but I still see it. Unfurling beneath my brother’s small, broken body like the red petals of a rose. And suddenly the pain that’s always inside me, tightly coiled, swells into something so big and so fierce that it feels like it will burst my heart, split my skull, tear me apart.”
Andi’s father goes to Paris to visit and work with an old friend, a historian whose specialty is the French Revolution. Together, they are working on testing the alleged heart of Louis XVII, the “lost dauphin,” ten year old Louis-Charles, the child of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Did the child die, alone and broken and terrified? Or was he smuggled out for a dead child? Andi discovers a diary of a young girl, Alex, a poor actress who became companion to Louis-Charles. “They keep him in the Tower, a cold, dark room with one window, small and high. The guards are cruel. There is no stove to warm him. No privy. His filth piles up in a corner. He has no playthings. No books. Nothing but rats. What food he is given, he puts in a corner, to draw them off. He does not know his mother is dead and writes these words with a stone on his wall — Mama, please…. Once you were brave. Once you were kind. You can be so again.”
Andi works on her senior thesis, about a French composer who lived during the Revolution, reads the diary of Alex, wanders through Paris. Her Paris, the Paris of Alex, are told in wonderful detail. Past and present come to life. Andi’s music connects her with fellow Parisian musicians, including an attraction to handsome Virgil. Those relationships begin to anchor her in the present. At the same time, she is desperate to get home, to rescue her mother from the psychiatric hospital she’s been committed to, to not leave her alone.
The parallels: Andi’s privileged life, the privilege of the French aristocrats. Her brother Truman, dead at ten, a death Andi blames herself for. Louis-Charles, dead at ten, a death that Alex feels responsible for. Louis-Charles, imprisoned in a tower and denied any comfort or love; Andi’s mother, imprisoned in a hospital, an artist denied paints and brushes. The music, Andi’s own music and those she hears around her, tied to the past, to the musicians that came before, and her research into the French composer Malherbeau. The DNA found in people, the DNA of musical influence. It all works, comes together beautifully. My heart aches for Andi, wonders if she can forgive herself and become brave and kind again. I got caught up in Alex’s diary, with concern for that small boy, and wondered if Alex’s increasingly desperate and risky acts to try to let Louis-Charles know that he is not alone, he is not forgotten, he is still loved worked. Did they do anything? Did they ease her guilt, did it give hope? Does hope matter when the end of the story is a cold, brutal death?
Just because “the wretched world goes on, as stupid and brutal tomorrow as it was today,” do we have to be stupid and brutal? Or can we be brave and kind, no matter what the world brings?
About two-thirds through the book, there is a second section. “Purgatory,” again with a quote from Dante. Andi descends into a catacomb for a party with her new friends. And here, Donnelly makes a choice about the story that not everyone will love. I am personally torn as to what exactly happens, what it means. Andi is in a bleak place, unsure of herself and her place in any world, still seeking an end to the endless sorrow of her brother’s death. Whether what happens next is literal or not, real or a dream, Andi is given the opportunity to work towards redemption. The final chapters are “Paradise,” again Dante: “Till I beheld through a round aperture Some of the beauteous things Heaven doth bear; Thence we come forth to rebehold the stars.” Those of you who have read the book, let’s discuss that in the comments. Those of you who haven’t — don’t read the comments until you have.
A revolution is an event: the French Revolution, the American Revolution. It is also a change in a way of thinking. This is Andi’s revolution.
A note on book design. I don’t have an e-reader; I’m not sure if e-books will replace physical books. I do know that the book design of Revolution shows the value of a physical object and how it adds to the book and is not merely a physical case to hold pages. In addition to the stunning artwork (a photograph of a modern girl, the painting of a 18th century girl, upside down, revolving) there is the red ribbon. Andi wears a red ribbon around her neck, holding a key that belonged to her brother; the surviving nobles of France wore red ribbons to remember those relatives killed by the guillotine. The ribbon is glossy, raised, and the spine shows the key. The endpapers are blood red.
Oh, and for the historical fiction lovers like myself, there are acknowledgements and sources.
Because the language is stunning. Because Andi and Truman, Alex and Louis-Charles haunt me. Because I am still wondering at the difference between stupid and brutal, brave and kind, and whether it matters. Because my reservations about the book are about only a handful of pages, and those handful do not outweigh the seeking of braveness and kindness in ourselves. Revolution is a Favorite Book Read in 2010.