By Jennifer Donnelly
Andi Alpers is one of a group of very smart, very talented, very privileged teens at a private school in Brooklyn. They begin their days self-medicating to dull the pain of being very smart, very talented and very privileged.
However, Andi, a promising musician, has real pain. She watched her little brother die in the street and she knows it was her fault.
Now, her Nobel Prize-winning scientist father rarely comes home and her artist mother spends her days trying to capture her brother's face in paintings. When Dad finally sees how bad things have gotten, he puts Mom in a mental hospital and whisks Andi off to Paris. That's where he will do DNA testing on a tiny human heart to see if it was that of Louis-Charles, the 10-year-old dauphin who was practically walled up alive in the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution.
In France, Andi is again left on her own, even though she's on heavy-duty depression meds and thinks about suicide, and told by Dad to get her senior thesis going. The thesis attempts to connect Jimmy Paige and Radiohead to the works of a real-life Revolution-era composer. Whether describing Andi's current compositions and playing or the ideas in her thesis, Donnelly excels in making music vibrant. She succeeds very well in showing that Andi's love of music is what keeps her from killing herself, even when she thinks it might be her best solution.
Andi also finds a group of young musicians, including a taxi-driving rapper/composer she is drawn to, and, in a hidden compartment of an old guitar given to her by her father' historian friend, the diary of a teenage girl who lived during the Revolution. The girl, Alexandrine, is from a family of players who becomes Louis-Charles's companion through the Terror until he is taken from his parents. The intense account drives Andi closer to the edge of keeping her own sanity. The meds have her hallucinating that she can see her dead brother.
Even though a lot has been built into the plot, up until this point Revolution has worked has a novel because Donnelly has made all the pieces work together. Andi's father and his historian friend, for example, argue during a television program about the difference between human emotion and the solid proof of what scientific evidence shows is the sum total of a heart. That fits right in with Andi's struggle to show her father that the grief she and her mother feel is as natural to them as his retreating to the lab is to him.
Unfortunately, about two-third through the story, Donnelly uses a trite plot device to make it possible for Andi to resolve historical questions and to apply what she discovers to the present day. This plot device may seem perfectly suitable to older teens, to whom the book is marketed. But it also may ruin the novel for discerning readers who would otherwise be delighted with this latest work by the author of A Northern Light, The Winter Rose and A Tea Rose.
Donnelly does handle the dual storylines of realistic contemporary family drama and historical fiction well. Her impassioned writing about music, personal and societal liberty, guilt and grief means Revolution is full of ideas. She also employs the occasional use of Anglo Saxon to provide that frisson of edginess. If it had not been for that plot device and the last third of the novel, this would have been an even better novel than it is. And that's too bad, because not many writers can weave together so many plot points and themes to such advantage.
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