Revolution

Revolution was written by Jennifer Donnelly and first published in 2010. It is a very ambitious novel that blends elements of contemporary, historical and science fiction, presenting the dual stories of an American teenager suffering from the death of her brother, and a French teenager trying to survive the Great Terror. The novel stands alone, so you don’t have to have read any of Donnelly’s other books to fully appreciate it.

Andi Alpers is falling apart. Her little brother – Truman – has been dead for two years, her mother is lost in grief and her father has left them to start a family with a younger woman. Andi knows that she is entirely to blame for all of this and is growing increasingly numb to everything. She is flunking school but doesn’t care. She knows that everyone would be happier if she just wasn’t around.

However, her father’s sudden return derails her morbid plans. To Andi’s horror, he immediately has her mother sent away to a psychiatric institution and insists that Andi accompanies him to Paris over the school break. He hopes that the change will do her good and give her ample time to work on her thesis – a complex work linking an 19th Century French musician to present day acts. Over this time, they will be staying with an eccentric family friend – a Historian known as G who is desperate to prove that a mummified heart belongs to the last Prince of France.

Although Andi is desperate to finish her research and return to her mother, she grows increasingly distracted as she discovers a lost diary belonging to a servant working in the Court of King Louis XVI. The girl – Alex – initially agreed to be a companion for the young prince to move up in society, but gradually grew to view him as a younger brother. Andi keeps reading these increasingly grim accounts of the French Revolution, hoping for the best. However, as G’s research continues, she becomes increasingly fearful as to what Alex’s fate will be…

Before I begin, please bear in mind that my opinions are my own. Revolution is a massively successful novel and has won a number of awards, so therefore I would certainly encourage you to search it out if you’re in any way curious about its subject matter. However, I personally thought that this novel was far more complicated than it needed to be. Revolution was a story that tried far too hard to be the sort of book that wins awards, and I felt it did so at the expense of the story.

Let’s start with the things that I did like. Alex’s diary entries are fascinating. While these are used sparingly throughout the novel, they provide an eye-opening look of what life was like for people of all walks of life during the Great Terror. The social divide of this period was vast – from the opulent gilded palaces of the noble caste to the streets of Paris where starvation and disease were rampant. While these passages aren’t as descriptive as I may have liked as they’re written as Alex’s stream of consciousness, they were excellent at maintaining tension. The reader knows from the start that Alex’s story can’t end well, yet you still found yourself wanting her to find some freak way of rescuing the Dauphin from his Hellish fate.

However, I’m dubious as to how accessible this novel would be if you don’t already know much about the history of Revolutionary France. There is a lot of name dropping in this story and little by the way of explanation, as even Andi seemed to be an expert on this period. Perhaps this is a difference between the English and American school systems, but I didn’t study this era until I was in Sixth Form. Real political figures like Robespierre, Danton and Marat are repeatedly mentioned without any explanation as to why they were important, mixed in with the historical characters of Donnelly’s own creation (like the composer Malherbeau). Due to the lack of descriptions, it’s also hard to appreciate certain actions (like what it meant for the royalty to have to leave Versailles and move to the Tuileries) unless you have some idea of what these places look like. If you don’t know anything about Paris or the French Revolution, I think you might find yourself more than a little confused.

I also felt that Andi’s contribution to the story was ultimately a lot weaker. About three quarters of the overall story were dedicated to exploring the protagonist’s depression, guilt complex and suicidal thoughts. Due to how dark and complex this subject matter is, it makes these chapters rather hard to read. This isn’t helped by the fact that I didn’t find Andi to be a very likable character. People go out of their way in this story to extend her the olive branch and generally help with her recovery, yet she is unnecessarily rude to them all and actively pushes away anyone who is remotely kind to her. While her behaviour is understandable and excusable to a degree, it grows increasingly tiresome as she shows a distinct lack of development.

Andi never has a real moment of epiphany in the story. Without spoiling too much, the novel ultimately leaned towards the fact that she was right in all things, including knowing better than the medical professions who are trying to treat her mother. This is a real structural problem with the story as Andi’s plot kind of meanders along until it suddenly ends. I found the epilogue of the story to be particularly insulting in this regard, as it just flips to one year later when Andi’s life suddenly seems to be on track. It’s almost as though Donnelly wrote herself into a corner and couldn’t really see any way that she could reconcile Andi’s animosity towards everyone and everything by the four hundred page mark.

I also felt that the final act was unnecessary. This constitutes a minor spoiler, but the last hundred pages of the novel is where it suddenly pitched into science fiction territory. Andi hits her head and finds herself in 19th Century France (though it’s left up to the reader to decide if this is a dream or actual time travel). While this section does have the advantage of getting across the horror of the time in the way that Alex’s letters do not, it also leads to some incredible plot conveniences (and creating some mind blowing causal loops). I won’t spoil these any further for you here, but I will just say that it felt really unnecessary. The novel was already a bit of a tenuous mix of contemporary and historical elements. It didn’t need to add time travel to the mix too.

I think I’ve probably said enough. Speaking as someone who finds Revolutionary France fascinating, I was really disappointed by this book. Revolution could have been excellent, but it tried to be far too much. It was massively too long and, as it couldn’t focus on doing one thing well, it just felt like a weak merging of contemporary, historical and time travel fiction. I’m not sure who I’d even really recommend it to. If you’re interested in French history you might get something out of it, but I found it to be forgettable on the whole.

Revolution can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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