Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

I wanted to like this book after having read and enjoyed A Northern Light, which was an excellent historical fiction novel. Revolution is both contemporary and historical in that there are two stories, one set in each time period, connected to each over via the French Revolution. However, maybe because of the dual storylines and narratives, the book itself was extremely messy in certain places, causing the book to not be as good as it could have been.

Andi has never recovered from the death of her ten-year old brother Truman, and neither has her mother. Constantly fighting her growing desire to commit suicide, Andi loses herself in her guitar playing, the only thing that lets her escape her pain. As a result, she is about to fail out of her uber-ritzy private high school, particularly as she has done absolutely no work on her senior thesis. Forced into accompanying her father on his trip to Paris to concentrate on her work, Andi finds a diary in an old guitar case, written by a young woman during the French Revolution. The author, Alexandrine, acted as a companion to the young Louis-Charles XVII, the surviving son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and dedicated her life to him during and after the Revolution in whatever way she could. In reading Alex’s diary, Andi feels a connection in the love they both felt for a young boy in their care and the cruelty of a world that appeared to not care about their fates.

Easily the best part of this book was Alex’s diary entries. The author must have done a huge amount of research, and it shows. She brings 18th century Paris alive and captures the multitude of emotions surrounding the Revolution – the rage, the fear, the desolation, the need for revenge, even the teeny-tiny specks of hope. So much happens, and so quickly. Reading about the revolution is like watching a Greek tragedy – you know everyone dies in the end, but you can’t help but follow along in their paths towards destruction. I also liked Alex because she is a survivor. She has dreams of being on the stage, and she uses her acting abilities to great effect to look after Louis-Charles both before and after the Revolution. She dedicates herself to a small, sickly boy doomed to die, casting off any cares for her life to bring what joy she can to his.

Before I became a hardcore fantasy reader, I read a ton of historical fiction in elementary school. I’ve read very little since then, and this book reminded me how much I miss it. The author provided a bibliography to all the books she used in her research, and even if I don’t pick up any historical fiction anytime soon, I will definitely copy down some of the books she used to look up at a later time. Both the French and Russian Revolution are two historical periods I enjoy reading about. I guess I really like tragedy.

Also interesting was Andi’s thesis topic about the musician Amadé Malherbeau and her research about how his musical influence shows up in a variety of different musicians’ work, even in the twenty-first century. If Among Others was about the love of books, then Revolution was about the love of music, and how music too survives and evolves to create a lasting impression on the world to come. I’m not really a music person and recognized very few of the works mentioned, but the love was still present.

However, there were multiple parts of this book that did not work. First off, Andi’s family and background felt ridiculously over-the-top. Her father’s a Nobel Prize winning geneticist, her mother’s a world-class painter, Andi’s apparently a tested genius, and she attends a private school were students are gifted and talented enough to regularly get movie deals and get direct quotes from world leaders for their papers. I can believe in a school entirely filled with filthy-rich kids. Those exist. I can’t believe in a school where every single one of those kids is a genius. The entire set-up was too incredulous for me to fully suspend disbelief.

Andi, herself, I could take or leave. She never made much of an impression on me past the fact that she was filled with overwhelming grief for her brother Truman and that she loved music. It’s not that she was badly written, but more that she never became more than just a character. I was invested in her story inasmuch that through her, I could learn more about Alex’s. I didn’t care so much about Andi’s outcome.

The real kicker was the last fourth of the novel when (SPOILERS) Andi manages to hit her head and travel back into 1795 where she meets Amadé Malherbeau, whose life and music she’s been studying for her thesis, and continues on the work of Alex in her quest to provide Louis-Charles happiness from his prison in the form of fireworks. At some point, she also lets Malherbeau listen to her iPod and he gains inspiration to write down the music that would later influence those self-same musicians. When Andi wakes up, she uses her little trip into time to reveal Malherbeau’s previously unknown heritage as a member of the aristocracy and write her thesis about his music.

I’m sorry, but WHAT? It’s never really made clear if Andi actually went back in time or if it was just a dream induced by bonking her head, but there’s a strong implication that the reason Malherbeau wrote his music was because he was able to listen to Andi’s iPod and because he drew inspiration from Andi taking over for Alex on fireworks duty. This is supposed to be a contemporary/historical novel, and then the author randomly introduces a speculative element in the form of time travel, and it’s so lazily done as to be insulting. The reason we have Malherbeau’s music and everyone else’s music is because she lets him listen to an anachronistic device filled with music that hasn’t even been written yet? Really? Really?

(OK, I just searched online and it turns out Malherbeau is fictional, so actual musical historical continuity isn’t as much of an issue. But even so, I intensely dislike how time travel was used in this book. The more I think about it, the more it pisses me off).

The scope of this book was ambitious, and it was executed reasonably well for three-fourths of the book, but it all came crashing down by the end. Honestly, I was done with the book when Alex’s diary ended. I’ll probably still read any future books the author writes, provided that their historical fiction, because that’s what she writes so excellently. Ah well.

Published in: on July 2, 2011 at 2:02 PM  Leave a Comment  

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