Review of “Revolution” by Jennifer Donnelly

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.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2010

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21 Responses to Review of “Revolution” by Jennifer Donnelly

  1. bermudaonion says:

    I’ve been excited about this book ever since I first read about it. I love to read about France and the French Revolution. I’m so glad to see you loved this book!

  2. Amy says:

    I am a little embarassed to admit I’ve never heard of Jennifer Donnelly but, on the other hand, I’m very excited to have a new author and some wonderful books to experience. You had me at Pink Floyd in your review! (very big fan!) I noticed the video before I read your review but once I read how Pink Floyd is part of the story and the fugue aspect of the story as well as a bit about Andi I was definitely hooked. I’m putting this book at the top of my tbr but plan to pick up both soon I hope!

  3. Barbara says:

    Thanks for including the Pink Floyd bit. The writer is certainly right – that 4 note phrase is the musical equivalent of sadness. Pink Floyd always affects my mood. Great review.

  4. Marie says:

    I’ve heard lots of great things about this book recently- it looks wonderful and I’m so glad you enjoyed it so much. Yay!

  5. Jenners says:

    This sounds like it has so much going on … and all of it good. I’m intrigued and want to check out both books.

  6. Nymeth says:

    Oh, I can’t tell you how excited I am to read this, especially after hearing you say it’s just as amazing as A Gathering Light in its own way.

  7. I loved A Northern Light, and I have been looking forward to this one. After reading your review “looking forward to” has been upgraded to “excited about.” Wonderful review! 🙂

  8. Alyce says:

    I too loved A Northern Light, and was excited to see that she had another book coming out. You did such a fabulous job of reviewing this. I don’t think I would have caught a lot of the deeper meanings (like the double meaning of fugue within the story). I’m glad to see that you liked this one though – I’ve been hoping it would be good.

  9. Lisa says:

    History? Music? Comparison to a fugue? I’m so in. I am going to have to pick up both Northern Lights and this one.

  10. Staci says:

    My friend has a copy of this one so I think I’m going to beg her for it to read over Christmas break!! I loved A Northern Light too!!

  11. Doret says:

    I really liked Northern Light. I did do a double take when I saw Revolution come in, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to read it

    Now its just a matter of when. I listened to bit of that Pink Floyd pharse and didn’t hear sadness either.

    Revolution has such a beautiful cover, I know adult fans of historical fiction will love it as well

  12. zibilee says:

    What a brilliant review! I have this book and am really looking forward to reading it. I think it’s one that my daughter is going to want to steal from me when I am done as well. So glad that you loved it!

  13. Bookjourney says:

    I have had an eye on this book and your review just sealed the deal… 🙂

  14. Julie P. says:

    I also can’t wait to read this one! I read TEA ROSE and liked it, but I hear that I need to read her other ones.

  15. peobar ronyasha roldah says:

    well i am somehow excited ,when i was 11 years old i saw a picture of louis xvii ,he was cute and innocent,first i really didn’t know about his fate but i soon discover,there was also rumors for his survivor ,don’t think me as a stone heart guy but i really wished that he would have died in prison,because just in that end his life will became the star of innocence in the history,and maybe because of my personality or my mental connection to his style of misery ,i have a great passion for tragic death of the young boys,(of course in fiction because i created lots of fantasy caracter similar to his face and fate in my life time imaginations)but louis charles life is a real symbol,and when i discover that the DNA test shows the truth about his death i feel relax,my idol of the innocence fullfill his mark on the history,i was surprised some how because 10 years before the DNA test i was hooked up with the boy”s life and never think that some historians and scientists will show interest ,yesterday i just feel for giving a visit to his article in wikipedia and i saw there is a novel relesed JUST 10 DAYS BEFORE from the author that i never heard of,Jennifer Donnelly,it seems that she is a very excellent author and her books specially this one is really great,i am shocked again to see that i am not alone in my mental mind,not belive in telepaty it is ordinary that lots of people have some similar interest but finding them is very exciting ,too bad i live in a country that can’t order or buy anything from the amazon or any kind of websites my native languge is not english so no chance for a translation ,not all of the books from the world will translate to every language, we even can’t get the orginal book here so who ever read the book enjoy it for me too.
    (sorry for my long reply and forgive me for bad grammer and dictation as i said english is not my native language,and i wrote this in a hurry)

  16. Meghan says:

    I’m so glad to hear this is great, and it has a deeper meaning. I loved A Northern Light and I’m glad I have this one coming up soon.

  17. Jenny says:

    When I started reading this, I thought Andi was a little over the top, but I ended up loving the book almost unreservedly. I love the kind of bravery like the girl with the diary, where they are super brave and risk everything to set a small good thing against an enormous bad thing. That is cool.

  18. Vickie says:

    Love the review! ^^

  19. I just finished it today and posted my review. I loved it! as I did A Northern Light. Great review!

  20. mrsdaffodil says:

    When I finished reading this book, I wanted to start right in again. Thank you for posting Shine on your crazy diamond!

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