When I read A Northern Light by Donnelly, I fell in love with it. I thought the writing was outstanding. It took place in 1906, however, so this book, which starts out in contemporary times and alternates with action taking place in the 18th Century, sounds very different. Yet it is just as amazing in other ways. What a versatile artist Donnelly is!
In A Northern Light, the protagonist, Mattie, comes into some old letters and through reading them, helps solve a mystery. Similarly, in Revolution, the protagonist Andi finds an old diary and solves a mystery as well. In both, the heroine’s voice alternates with the writer of the letters and diary. Also in both, parallel circumstances in the older writing helps the protagonist solve her current emotional problems.
Revolution tells the story of high school senior Andi Alpers, who blames herself for the death of her younger brother Truman, a sweet boy they all adored who told his family that love was the key to the universe. Simultaneously it is the story of Alexandrine Paradis, also seventeen, who desperately tries, but fails, to prevent the murder of her young charge, Louis-Charles, who is the son of the King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette.
At the story’s onset, Andi is all about pain. She is cruel to her friends because “for just a few seconds, someone else hurts, too. For just a few seconds, I’m not alone.” Not only has Andi suffered the loss of her beloved brother, but her father, a Nobel-prize winning geneticist, has left, and her mother has had a psychotic breakdown. Andi herself struggles from flunking out and from not committing suicide. The only thing that keeps her going, and that she still believes in, is music:
“…music lives. Forever. …it’s stronger than death. Stronger than time. And its strength holds you together when nothing else can.”
She half-heartedly works on her senior thesis regarding a mysterious 18th century musician, Amade Malherbeau, famous for his Fireworks Concerto. Her teachers at St. Anselm’s tell her she is a genius. But Andi’s music teacher tells her that knowing pain is not enough; she must play with more feeling, and he advises her to listen to the famous four-note-long guitar phrase in Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” This signature arpeggio, her teacher says, “sounds exactly how sadness feels.”
This song, this title, this sequence, becomes a theme in the book. (More on this under the Discussion Section.)
Andi’s father takes her to Paris with him, and insists she use her time to research her thesis. It is here, however, that she discovers Alex’s diary, and becomes absorbed.
Both Andi and Alex have come to fear happiness. Andi says:
“I don’t like hope very much. In fact, I hate it. Its’ the crystal meth of emotions. It hooks you fast and kills you hard. It’s bad news. The worst. It’s sharp sticks and cherry bombs. When hope shows up, it’s only a matter of time until someone gets hurt.”
Andi meets a boy in Paris, a good-looking Tunisian-French hip-hop artist who tries to help her, but she is afraid to let her guard down.
And Alex, who sees not only terror and sorrow and innocence but love in Louis-Charles eyes as the guards drag him away, says:
“I am not afraid of beatings or blood anymore. I’m not afraid of guards of guillotines. 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.”
Discussion: There are so many layers in this book it’s hard to cover them all. It is, in at least two senses, a fugue: The musical definition of a fugue is a musical composition in which several themes are repeated and developed in a continuous interweaving of its parts. A psychological fugue refers to a disturbed state of consciousness “in which a person suddenly travels far from home or work and leaves behind a past life. The condition is usually associated with severe stress or trauma. Because persons cannot remember all or part of their past, at some point they become confused about their identity and the situations in which they find themselves. In rare cases, they may take on new identities.”
The book is, moreover, a historical treatise on the French Revolution. It is also a treatise on “the transformative power of art” and the influence that different artists have on one another. It is a retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is also the organizing principle. It is about keys: from the genome, to the secret compartment that releases the diary, to the best way to play a musical composition, to the meaning of life. And it’s about fireworks – “the sparkling fountains and cascade … that look like stars breaking … or like all the souls in heaven.” Both little boys in the story loved fireworks; Louis-Charles thought they reminded him of “Mama’s diamonds.” Malherbeau dedicated his best work to them. And when Andi invokes the music, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” she ties it all together with a message of hope.
Alex has an epiphany when the royal family was under attack. She could have escaped the mob, but she ran back into the palace to try and rescue Louis-Charles:
“I had sliced my hands to ribbons and felt nothing. No pain, only fear – for him. I think it was then that the revolution began. Not for Paris or for the French. But for me.”
Similarly, Andi experiences her own revolution when she accepts that:
“You can’t change history. You can’t change the world. All you can ever change is yourself.”
Evaluation: What? You haven’t read Jennifer Donnelly yet? The good news is, you’ve got some wonderful reading in store for you.
Published by Random House Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2010