Sunday, November 21, 2010

REVIEW: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

by Jennifer Donnelly
Hardcover, 472 pages
Published October 12th 2010
Delacorte Books for Young Readers


BROOKLYN: Andi Alpers is on the edge. She’s angry at her father for leaving, angry at her mother for not being able to cope, and heartbroken by the loss of her younger brother, Truman. Rage and grief are destroying her. And she’s about to be expelled from Brooklyn Heights’ most prestigious private school when her father intervenes. Now Andi must accompany him to Paris for winter break.

PARIS: Alexandrine Paradis lived over two centuries ago. She dreamed of making her mark on the Paris stage, but a fateful encounter with a doomed prince of France cast her in a tragic role she didn’t want—and couldn’t escape.

Two girls, two centuries apart. One never knowing the other. But when Andi finds Alexandrine’s diary, she recognizes something in her words and is moved to the point of obsession. There’s comfort and distraction for Andi in the journal’s antique pages—until, on a midnight journey through the catacombs of Paris, Alexandrine’s words transcend paper and time, and the past becomes suddenly, terrifyingly present.

REVIEW: First, let me say that this is the first book by Jennifer Donnelly that I have read.  So, I was able to read it with a fresh mind, no expectations and not compare it her previous YA offering, A Northern Light

That being said, I can say that I pretty much loved almost everything about this book. I mean that.  Revolution has angst, rebellion, a fabulous mystery, solid scholarly research and the most fantastic playlist I’ve ever read in any book.  The main protagonist, Andi, is still dealing with her brother’s death that happened two years earlier.  Her mom has gone a bit crazy, and her dad couldn’t deal and basically left Andi and her mom.  Andi starts doing what a lot of angry teenagers do when they are depressed: she starts ditching school and ignoring her schoolwork.  Big Papa finds out, comes in, stamps out some quick decisions, and makes Andi come with him to Paris so she can get away and catch up on schoolwork while he conducts some heavy duty scientific research.  That is a very basic introduction to the story – it is a lot more involved, but this story is so beautifully written, I truly don’t want to ruin the experience for anyone. 

Andi might be one of the most intelligent characters I’ve ever read.  Also one of the most tormented.  She's brutal and makes the most sarcastic, clever, but caustic observations I’ve read in quite a while.  Consider:

“Orla McBride is a cancer survivor and wrote about it for her college apps and got into Harvard early admission.  Chemo and hair loss and throwing up pieces of your stomach beat the usual extracurricular hands down.  Vijay only got waitlisted, so he still has to go to class.”
Pg. 6

This might make me a sick puppy, but it was her comments like this that made me simultaneously laugh out loud and make my jaw drop.  I’ve read a few reviews that said this was teenaged angst on overload.  I most firmly disagree.  We’re mot talking about normal adolescent pain.  We’re talking traveling-up-your-spine, splicing-your-soul, you-can-only-see-one-way-out pain.  It ain’t pretty.  Some people do notice and try to help, but really, Andi only wants her mom, and that lady is too busy trying to have an emotional connection with two dimensional versions of her deceased son to notice her living daughter.  If you have no frame-of-reference for Andi’s anguished mental state, then yes, it might be easy to dismiss her anger, depression and suicidal wishes as melodramatic moodiness.  However, if you ever have been affected by depression or watched someone you love go through it, you might be more sympathetic to Andi’s attitude and issues.  Being a teenager has nothing to do with it.  Andi has been through some serious stuff, and its taken its toll.

Andi also comes from a background that has produced a worldly, cynical and extremely well-educated person.  Some people may find this pretentious.  I didn’t.  Any comments she made about her and her classmates' superiority were dripping with sarcasm.  She certainly knows that she and her cohorts have the best of everything.  Again, Andi has a very sharp-tongued and caustic observation style regarding her family, peers and overall place in the U.S. social and wealth hierarchy.  It’s really not referenced much in the story by Andi, but just the mere fact of where she goes to school, that she simply jets off to Paris with her father. . . you are very aware that she is a ‘rich girl’ and an extraordinarily privileged individual.  Trust me, Donnelly meant for you to be aware of this.

I don’t want to go through the book in detail.  I will say that Andi stumbles onto a mystery in Paris when she finds the diary of a poor girl named Alexandrine Paradis, who lived during the French Revolution.  Andi becomes obsessed with what happened to her, and their pain parallels the other’s, regardless of their very different backgrounds.  Alexandrine’s fate becomes intertwined in Andi’s own, and you become as interested in what becomes of Alexandrine as you do Andi – I particularly liked that Andi found herself wrapped up in this character of history as she read her diary while I was doing the same with Andi.  At some point, you do start wondering if both Andi and Alexandrine are going mad, or if each's conscience is speaking to them through subconscious, uncanny ways.  More than a few times, I wondered if Alex and Andi were/are the same person. 

There is so much layering in this book that I could not possibly go through it all without ruining some things for you.  I will say that is there is a significant amount of debate about whether history is fact or narrative, and about what makes people what they are.  The way the history is woven through the modern story is absolutely marvelous and at no point did I feel jarred from one setting to the other – it felt like a smooth road in and out of two different times.  The only thing part I had trouble getting into is a part I can’t mention – it’s too pivotal a part of the story!  It borders on the supernatural, and you are never quite sure if it really happened or not.  It works, but it took a moment to accept.  You’ll know what I mean when you get there. 

Other points about the story I liked: the entire story is absolutely steeped in music – the history of it, the structure of it and the listening to it.  It’s amazing, and I am sorely tempted to keep the book for a few days extra and pay the library fines just so I can go through it, collect all the songs and make a Revolution playlist.  I also appreciated how much work went into establishing the historical context of the French Revolution – I’ve read a few recent histories of that time, and Donnelly’s writing is spot on.  Also included in the story are references to the feelings of marginalization being felt by the same French communities that Virgil is from. 

I recommend this book.  It was a brutal, take-no-prisoners sort of read.  I wish I could go into more detail as I normally do, but that would be cheating you out the experience of reading this book and discovering all its layers yourself.  The mystery, the music, the history, the family tension, the developing romance, the question over what is truth and the personal battle that Andi fights with her own grief. .  . this story is simply a lovely, living thing.

Overall: A

Favorite Quotes:

She’s got a big belt around her hips.  It has a shiny buckle with PRADA on it, which is Italian for insecure.
Pg. 33

I’m wishing he could see that music lives.  Forever.  That it’s stronger than death.  Stronger than time.  And that its strength holds you together when nothing else can.
Pg. 87

Poor Ophelia.  She was the smartest of them all, worth more than her toadying father, her dupe of a brother, and Prince Dither put together.  She alone knew that one must meet the world’s madness with more madness.
Pg. 199, excerpt from Alexandrine’s diary

On those nights, the words were for me alone.  They came up unbidden from my heart.  They slipped over my tongue and spilled from my mouth.  And because of them I, who was nothing and nobody, was a prince of Denmark, a maid of Verona, a queen of Egypt.
Pg. 220, excerpt from Alexandrine’s diary

It was my soul I thought to barter with, yes, and gladly I’d have given it, for it is a small thing and of no value to me. But it was not my soul that was taken, no.
It was my heart.
Pf. 287, excerpt from Alexandrine’s diary


  1. Thanks for an extensive and well written review. I always love it when bloggers take the time to be thorough when writing a review. I am ordering this book now, can't wait to read it.

    ( And I love the fact that I can subscribe to your posts via e-mail)

  2. I just finished reading this book as well and I absolutely loved it. LOVED IT. well except for that odd part towards the end....that was weird. You have to read A Northern Light!

  3. Fantastic review -- one of the best out there on this amazing book! Your angst comments are right on -- the criticisms I've seen dismissing Andi's emotional state as mere teen angst are so wrong!! I agree with you -- if you've ever seen real depression, you'll recognize it in Andi (though her high intelligence and privilege makes hers even more acute somehow).

    One of my favorite things about Revolution are the layers upon layers of little references and literary nuggets that spring to life upon close inspection. I've read the book twice (and various sections more that that!), and I continue to find new stuff that enriches the story.

    A couple of things I didn't see the first time around:

    First, Alexandrine Paradis = Diandra Xenia Alpers -- their names are an anagram! I think this underscores something you suggested above: Donnelly is offering these two not as separate girls in two time periods, but as one character in a story that's ALWAYS occurring ("the world goes on, stupid and brutal ..."). I think this puts the "supernatural" part in a very different light: if you consider these two to be one character in a timeless story, then time is irrelevant and it really doesn't matter who's in what time period. Donnelly even mentioned in an interview that Andi and Alex are "sort of the same character" ... hmm. As you noted elsewhere, there's nothing accidental in this book -- that section (which I'm sure Donnelly knew would raise eyebrows) is in there for a reason.

    Second, Truman's/Andi's key came from the Paradise theater in NYC, which the vendor said was built in 1808. That's right around the time Alex (Paradis) would have set up shop had she managed to escape Paris to pursue her dream of a life onstage. Hmmm ... that's not by accident either. Another really hopeful thread in a sometimes very heavy book! (Anyone else see a LOT of hope in this book??)

    Third, the book is LOADED with nods to Dante's Inferno. There are the obvious ones (the sections of the book and epigraphs), the less-obvious ones (her guide Virgil leading her through the restive skeletons in catacomb-purgatory), the fun ones (Virgil's cab says "EPIC RIDE" on it!), and the breathtaking ones (seeing the stars -- geez that was amazing, but I won't say anything more so I don't give it away!)

    I really think this is a book of rare depth and achievement. A Northern Light was great, too (definitely read it if you like Donnelly's literary and lyrical style!), but I think this is a grander, bolder and more accomplished work. I can only imagine what she'll do next!

    PS - Donnelly has the full playlist up on her website!

  4. Yes, Ralph! I actually did know about the names. When I was writing the review, I was trying to decide whether to go into all the layers or whether to address the comments I heard about Andi's character - I decided to go with the latter since I have not read as much about that. If I had written about all the different layers, oh wow, it would have been a term paper.

    I don't think that they were absolutely meant to be the same person, but perhaps a more of a statement that different people in different times go through the same things, and despite our different backgrounds, we are subject o the same tragedies that happen to others.

    Oh yes, the Inferno references were everywhere. I kept looking for Andi to have a dream about being a tree ;)

    I agree - I found this book to be hopeful. Didn't you just love Virgil? Good guy. Although, I was hoping for more of a understanding between Andi and her father, but I guess you can't have it all.

    So, you think Alex survived?

  5. Wow Linds, that was a heck of a review! I'm really looking forward to reading this one, the brutal, gut-wrenching stories are always my favorites, I'm not sure what that says about me. Loved reading all your thoughts, you write such thorough reviews!

  6. thanks Jenny! I have limited free time, so I tend to pick books to read that I am relatively sure I will like and will want to spend time on! Glad you enjoy them!


  7. "So, you think Alex survived?"

    Well, only one person knows, of course, and I'm sure she'd never say one way or another. But I'm pretty sure Donnelly made the key come from that theater (with that name, built in that year) so eternal optimists like me can cling to the hope that she did!!