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Andi Alpers is watching her life disintegrate: her father has left, her mother is slowly losing her mind, and her younger brother was killed two years earlier. Andi herself is on the verge of suicide, taking medication that causes hallucinations, but unable to function without it. In an attempt to get her to graduate high school, her father appears to drag her off to Paris over the winter break.
Once there, Andi becomes caught up in the story of Alexandrine, a young woman who lived during the French Revolution. Alexandrine’s diary, which she finds in a guitar case, captivates Andi in a way that nothing else can. As her father helps genetically test what may be the heart of Prince Louis-Charles XVII, it becomes more and more apparent that Andi’s life and Alexandrine’s past are paralleling each other… and Andi’s hallucinations take on a frightening lucidity.
The center of this novel is Donnelly’s wonderful portrayal of Andi. Keep in mind that she’s not an immediately sympathetic character, as readers meet her at the height of her self-destructiveness. But even then, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of pity for her, because from the first, the author makes her rough but not unlikeable. As more information about her comes out, it’s easier to feel for her in her difficulties, and before long readers will care about her in spite of her failings. It’s the hallmark of a great writer to make you like a character that doesn’t have a lot of redeeming qualities that jump out at you from the beginning. Andi’s issues are understandable, even if the vast majority of readers will never experience the depths to which she sinks in her pain, because there’s enough that readers can identify with to carry them to the point of sympathetic regard.
Not knowing much about the French Revolution, I found the historic detail fascinating. Donnelly has obviously done an immense amount of research for this novel. Not only did she cover the main events, she gives readers a great sense of the period from the point of view of the common citizen. She evokes the fear in revolutionary France, not sparing readers the guillotine and the squalor of much of the city. But she also sets up modern day France as well, mapping out the landmarks in detail that stops short of being too much information and instead allows readers to picture the city vividly.
The description that I found most affecting was that of the catacombs—both in the past and the present. Donnelly captures the atmosphere that would be felt on a tour of the infamous tunnels, filled with bones, as well as the horrors that would have been seen during the height of the Terror.
While it becomes obvious later on just how much Andi’s life parallels Alexandrine’s experiences, the realization isn’t shoved in readers’ faces. It takes a good portion of the book to reveal exactly what happened to Andi’s brother, during which time Andi is working her way through the diary. It might have worked better to wrap up these backstories a little sooner, but I personally found the slower, more deliberate pace to work quite well.
This is definitely a thinking reader’s book. This isn’t a story to breeze through casually—careful reading is needed. But it’s quite worth the effort. The rich layers of the novel build on each other until the novel’s conclusion, and the time you put into following the tale is well rewarded. The underlying theme of music and how it builds on earlier artists through the ages is a useful metaphor for how the novel works.
A big question about this novel is whether or not there’s time travel involved. Personally, I don’t think there is, but events at the end of book are left somewhat vague, so readers can interpret as they will. The novel is stronger when reading it as a case of two lives paralleling across the gulf of time, as this reading lends a poignancy to the tale that is lost if the gimmick of time travel is used. But you can judge for yourself how you think the novel’s climax is played out. Either way, the ending has power and emotion.
Although I got Revolution from the library, I’d love to get my own copy. This novel has it all—rich history, compelling characters, and heart-stopping action. And the best part is that most of the best parts are based in real history and readers can do more reading on their own if they please. I bet you’ll read this book and want to find out more too.