Freshman year of college I went through a phase–nope, not that kinda phase, sorry–and stayed up late to watch Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” more than once, checked books out of the library about her, and just generally immersed myself for a couple of weeks. Then my attachment to the French Revolution time period sort of faded, and it wasn’t until recently that I decided to pick up the book Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, as recommended by a friend. There is so much going on with this book (some good, some bad), it’s a bit of a challenge not to spoil, but I’m going to try my best.
Revolution is the story of damaged teenage musical genius Andi Alpers, who ends up in Paris for winter break and finds herself wrapped up in history, specifically the French Revolution. Upon finding the diary of Alexandrine Paradis, a young girl chronicling the Revolution, Andi begins spiraling into a world of royal decadence, rebel upheaval, and ultimate tragedy.
Our protagonist, Andi, is intriguing in that she’s both endearing and annoying, and I mean that in the most loving way. She’s been through some tough losses, so I made it a point to remind myself of that every time she made a (glaringly obvious) mistake in socializing–and of course falling in love, because what story about a girl in Paris would be complete without a love subplot, right? Andi comes across as just what you may expect from a teenager: argumentative and stubborn, often fighting with her dad when not shutting him out completely, though not solely by her own fault, though to be fair, her dad could use a little guidance in communication as well. This conflict between the two of them as they stay in Paris (and prior to their arrival) plays a key role in the additional conflicts and subplots in the novel, Andi’s response to each playing off of that relationship in one way or another, major or minor.
One complaint I have about the novel is Donnelly’s excessive usage of short, staccato sentences. There are points within the novel when they add an excellent sense of urgency to what’s happening, like in times of panic for Andi, but there are other times when I feel like I’m reading a “Dick and Jane” book. Simplicity can be a strength when used effectively, but many times within the novel it felt like a hindrance, the constant stopping and lack of flow.
Additionally, several of the characters fell flat, from Jules whose only significant presence is in introducing Andi and another character, to Andi’s own mother, who is presented almost entirely as a wreck whom Andi (lovingly) cares for post-tragedy. In contrast, however, Andi is a complete and complex character, along with Alexandrine, who is impressively fleshed out through only entries of a diary. While the cast could use a bit of tightening up, the piece is still manageable and enjoyable through the depth of these two.
As a whole, I think the premise of this novel is fantastic in a period not often explored in YA work, and while bits of it bordered on cliche (such as Andi’s physical attributes as a rebel, with her oft-repeated description of being covered in “metal,” i.e, rings, a belt, chains), the overall work is a treat despite its problems. The novel leaves you gripping the pages as you hope beyond hope that all will work out for both Andi and Alexandrine as they navigate through their personal struggles. Donnelly does an impressive job intertwining the worlds of modern and revolutionary Paris to create a novel with heart.