The threads of time, music and mystery are skillfully interwoven in the latest novel by Michael L. Printz Honor Book Award winner Jennifer Donnelly. Inspired by Dante’s THE DIVINE COMEDY and an article written in the New York Times about the discovery of a heart in a glass urn believed to be the heart of the Louis Charles (son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette), REVOLUTION layers this tragedy in a sweeping saga that merges modern day with the French Revolution.
Two girls, Andi and Alex, one not knowing the other, are connected by a diary, a tragedy—and about two hundred years. Andi is lost. She stumbles throughout the day under the haze of anti-depression medication that numbs her from the grief and guilt that consumes her since the violent and untimely death of her younger brother Truman. She’s failing High School. She’s disconnected herself from her peers. Her father has abandoned her and her mother and lives with another woman in Paris. Her mother, a painter, spends all day painting portraits of the son she lost. The only thing that brings her solace is music. She plays with passion and vigour, knowing that it is the one thing that keeps her from going over the edge.
When her father, a geneticist working on the DNA of a heart believed to belong to Louis Charles the lost King of France, forces her to come with him to Paris over winter break to work on her senior thesis, Andi finds an old diary hidden in a guitar case. The diary is written by Alexandrine Paradis, a young woman who once wished to be a player on the Paris stage, but because of the political situation becomes a companion to Louis-Charles. “I played the role,” she writes, “But I played too well. I went too far. And by the time I wanted to stop, to take a bow and leave the stage, it was too late."
Bach. Cobain. Page. All play their part in the musical montage that is peppered throughout the novel. Like the “Masters of the Muse” David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, Donnelly expertly weaves music into the heart of this novel, making it not only give the novel its tone, but the element that connects characters past and future. As Andi is sort of a musical prodigy, her senior thesis is tracing the musical DNA of an 18th century guitarist Amadé Malherbeau to Jonny Greenwood. While trying to explain her thesis to her uninterested father, Andi says: "'Um, Dad? Guitarists don’t just listen to guitars. They listen to the music. You can hear Malherbeau’s guitar in Liszt’s piano...In a lot of blues and jazz stylings. John Lee Hooker drew from him. So did Ellington and Miles Davis. A lot of alt bands like Joy Division and the Smiths show his influence.'”
Later, when Andi meets hip-hop master/taxi-driver Virgil, Donnelly shows that they connect not only because he is “fine,” but also because of how well they play music together:
“Jules and I start to play. Virgil listens for a few beats, then holds up his hand. We shift to the chorus. He starts rhyming. And he’s good. Really good. We switch verse, stumble a bit, and then pick it back up. And suddenly, it’s happening. The beats and the rhymes and chords come together, and everything each one of us is giving becomes bigger and stronger than ourselves. Becomes music. Becomes magic.”
And, like Levithan and Cohn, who enjoy coming up with their own musical compositions and lyrics in their novels, Donnelly’s gives us Virgil’s words: “I try to conform/Do no harm, be the norm/But I can’t transform…”
Impeccably researched (Donnelly provides a bibliography and notes in the back of the novel for further reading), Alex’s account of Paris during the revolution is so candid that we not only know all of the players, but we can almost smell the gunpowder she uses, the catacombs she lives in and the cloves she eats to keep away the stink of the city.
Upon meeting the Duc d’Orléans, Alex notes “…he smiled…but the smile did not touch his eyes. Quick as a viper, he grabbed my wrist and pulled me to him. You play a dangerous game, player, he said quietly. Be careful. Not all are so easily played.”
We understand Alex’s motivation for survival, and we wish, like Andi does, that her story ends differently.
Perfect for anyone who loves historical-fiction, the French Revolution, music, mystery, and yes, a bit of madness, Donnelly has crafted a novel that gives us two unforgettable characters and a story of hope that even in a world gone mad, a person can find solace in the truth and in the music.