Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly
Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Jennifer Donnelly owes me some serious sleep. It’s almost impossible to put her latest blend of historical and contemporary fiction, Revolution, down once you’ve started it, and I happily traded a night of Zs to breathlessly race to the end. Even then, sleep was not forthcoming – I was unable to forget the characters I had come to love and empathize with, and ultimately mourn. I went on a googling frenzy of the villains, martyrs, paupers and princes of the French revolution, hoping for some redemption. When of course I found none, I realized that the book was so affecting that it actually made me yearn to change history. I was left with this question: in the quest for revolution, do the ends really justify the means?
At the outset of the book, we are introduced to the privileged Brooklyn Heights prep school world of Andi Alpers. Expectations are high in the fruit streets, and Andi and her friends (the “bored-oisie”) get through the stress with drugs, alcohol, and excess. But before I got the urge to gag Andi with her silver spoon, I found myself hurting for her. Her vitriol and angst aren’t of the spoiled teenager variety. She is angry and self-destructive because she is unable to forgive herself for the tragic death of her younger brother Truman.
Andi’s only true tie to the world of the living is music, which is “stronger than time. And its strength holds you together when nothing else can.” But even this saving grace is in danger of being snatched from her. Andi finds out she is failing her classes, and if she doesn’t produce a stellar senior thesis she won’t graduate – and can kiss dreams of a music conservatory goodbye.
When her absentee father gets wind of her academic situation, he forces her to join him in Paris for the holiday break so she can work on her thesis and restore her place among the elite. A Nobel prize-winning geneticist, he has been summoned to confirm the identity of a 200 year old heart rumored to be the mortal remains of the young Dauphin Louis-Charles—the son of King Louis VII and Marie Antoinette, who was imprisoned after his parents were executed. These tests will serve to confirm Louis-Charles’s fate: was he truly walled-in alive and left to die of neglect, or was another boy’s body left in his prison after he escaped?
As Andi digs through revolution-era artifacts to research her thesis subject (composer Amade Malherbeau) she uncovers the journal of Alexandrine Paradis, a street performer and caretaker for Louis-Charles. The revolution unfolds with frightening detail within the journal’s pages, and we become addicted to the plight of Alexandrine and Louis-Charles right alongside Andi. Though Andi abhors hope (“It’s the crystal meth of emotions. It hooks you fast and kills you hard. It’s bad news.”), she can’t help but indulge in it as she reads Alexandrine’s efforts to save young Louis-Charles from heartbreaking cruelty at the hands of the revolutionaries. One night, as Andi explores the catacombs under Paris with Virgil, a sweet Tunisian cab driver/rapper/cataphile, the revolution becomes terrifyingly real for Andi.
I love a good heroine, and Revolution delivers one of the bravest women ever put to page. Though Alexandrine is helpless against a mob of revolutionaries, and unable to protect Louis-Charles from imprisonment, she never gives up on her prince. She finds daredevilish means to give him hope, risking her life night after night to let him know that she’s still there, and that he doesn’t need to be afraid. She may be the only person in Paris who doesn’t fear the guillotine. “There is only one thing I fear now: love. For I have seen it and I have felt it and I know that it is love, not death, that undoes us.”
It’s impossible to read this book and not to hope for miracles: that Louis-Charles will escape; that the 200 year-old child-sized heart won’t belong to him; that Alexandrine will live to see Louis-Charles again; and that Andi will survive her grief.
Revolution is a book about the price of love and the transformative power of hope. Alexandrine and Andi each go through personal revolutions, and come to the same realization, centuries apart.
“You can’t change history. You can’t change the world. All you can ever change is yourself.”–Andi
“The world goes on stupid and brutal, but I do not. Can’t you see? I do not.” –Alexandrine