Book Review: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (Book of the Year Special)

rev

The plan was to publish the review of my Book of the Year on the first day of summer, i.e. three days ago, but I had to go on a work-related thing. Apologies to my readers!

I should say that “Book of the Year” may sound like the book was published in 2014, but it’s actually not the case – “Revolution” came out almost four years ago. However, it is the book that has had the most effect on me this year – hence the title.

 

Our protagonist, Andi Alpers, is grieving over the death of her younger brother Truman. She is struggling to overcome her misplaced guilt and the only thing getting her through the days is medication and music. The latter is the only one of three things she loves left in this world – her brother is gone, her mother is handling things even worse and her Nobel Prize winner of a father has left them. The deep, sorrowful tunes of old and new masters of music, as well as Andi’s own compositions, fill her iPod and her seemingly empty heart. Of course, being a “depressed artist” doesn’t fly with the authorities – Andi is almost denied her chance to graduate and her father, despite her protests, takes her to Paris with him to live with their old friends while she works on her thesis on a (fictional) French composer Amade Malherbeau and the influence of his work on modern music. Meanwhile, her father and his Parisian friend, G,  are working on a project that could change European history as known – they are carrying out a DNA analysis of what could be the heart of Louis XVII – the lost king of France. Andi’s love for history briefly distracts her from the darkness within, but it’s only a short-term relief, like a drug. She finds a better way to deal with things, however, when she finds an old diary amongst G’s historical relics, hidden in an old guitar.

The diary seemingly belongs to a young woman, Alexandrine, who lived through the French revolution and knew Louis XVII personally. Andi is quickly pulled into 18th century France and Alexandrine’s life. From the diary, she finds out that Alex was a poor girl with love of acting and big ambitions. One day, she is noticed by the French royal family and appears to be the only thing that makes young prince Louis laugh. Her family is given a place at the royal court and is beyond thrilled. Alex, however, sees it as a mere stepping stone to fulfil her dream of becoming an actor. Soon she realises that the nation is crumbling and is on the brink of Revolution, which means brutality, anger and bloodshed – if you’re rich. What she doesn’t recognise, however, is that working for some members of the family means conspiring against others, and she is soon pulled into a more dangerous play she could ever dream of being a part of. She has a new role to play, almost every day, and each of them could have fatal consequences.

Andi quickly realises that she has to know more but her thesis waits for no-one. (Un)fortunately, the life and work of Amade Malherbeau and that of Alex are entwined in more than one way (non-romantic, thankfully), as Andi finds out. But, like Alex, she may have bitten off more than she can chew.

 

I have read this book way back in February, but I was unable to find the words to sum up my emotions then. After a recent re-read (which may not have been the best idea – feeling things in the middle of exams is never good), I decided to try again. However, I am still not sure that my words would be able to do “Revolution” justice.

How can I tell you about what this book made me feel? How can I explain the way the brutal reality, beautifully intervened with French history and musical geniuses of past and present, has stirred up emotions in me which were long forgotten? Can I really successfully attempt to tell you how almost each line in this book has made me laugh, or cry, or sigh? Or how some lines have gone straight through to my heart and are now etched there for eternity?

And you know that I am an incredibly cynical individual by now, so I am not exaggerating. I genuinely cannot carry out reviewing “Revolution” the way I normally review books. The only adequate way to express myself seems to be going through particular significant quotes and tell you how much they meant to me. Warning – this will go on for a while, so if you don’t want to read further – just go pick up “Revolution”. You won’t regret it.

Can I really give this book a rating less than 10/10? The answer is – of course not.

Oh and – before you carry on reading my amateur attempts of literary analysis, watch this video.

 

Quotes

“Life’s all about the revolution, isn’t it? The one inside, I mean. You can’t change history. You can’t change the world. All you can ever change is yourself.”

The title of the book refers to several things – firstly, the French Revolution. Secondly, Donnelly arguably uses the word as a metaphor to describe character development – and I don’t mean just the literary kind. Andi goes through so much before and during the book, and she is better – not as a person because she has always been a good person – but she feels better. She has undergone a revolution within her – the triggers for the change may have been music, or history, or Alex’s story – but the change came because she wanted it to. Donnelly arguably parallels the causes of French Revolution and its consequences with the causes of Andi’s transformation; I don’t want to go into a debate about the significance of an event on the population vs. on a singular person’s mental state, but I will draw the following parallels:

– The French Royal court was known for its indifference to the crisis and the poor prior to the uprisings in Paris. From Andi’s perspective, her father has abandoned her and her mother after her brother was killed; perhaps him sticking around would have helped her get through her depression – the need for emotional support of the family during these times is something I can relate to. King Louis XVI was a very rich man but he was weak. One of the reasons Andi’s father disappeared was the fame and money brought by the Nobel Prize in genetics; but he can also be said to have left because he couldn’t cope with Andi’s mum’s fragile mental state, following Truman’s death.

– The Age of Enlightenment has produced many authors who tried to make a difference and have succeeded. This was particularly important in the relevant time period, especially for the revolutionaries who used the resources to influence the public. While the writers did not sway Alex because she was on the other side and saw first-hand the lives the Revolution has destroyed, it can be suggested that music did play the pivotal role in Andi’s development. Both classics and contemporary artists feature in her iPod, and she loves her guitar immensely. It is clear that music was the key to the Revolution within her, or at least one of the keys. The modern technology certainly helps to get instant access to music and be influenced right away doesn’t it? I shall discuss music more in the following section.

 

“I’m wishing he could see that music lives. Forever. That it’s stronger than death. Stronger than time. And that its strength holds you together when nothing else can.”

SPOILER This book features implied time-travel. It is unclear, however, whether it has actually occurred or Andi has just suffered a bad concussion. Without resorting to Albus Dumbledore’s famous quote about things being real even though they’re in one’s head, I can say that even if Andi didn’t go back in time (which, let’s face it, is unlikely), the events she “lived” through are no less significant. She has met the subject of her thesis, composer Amade Malherbeau, and he took her to be Alex, or as she was known at the time, “The Green Man”. As Andi finds out from the diary, Alex was, what one may call nowadays, a pyrotechnic fugitive. To give a bit of background, she used to be young prince Louis’ companion before the royal family got arrested and he got thrown into the dungeon. Alex knew that he loved fireworks, so she spent her nights setting them off for the whole of Paris, and most important of all, prince Louis, to see (That bit hurt, Mrs Donnelly – but in the best possible way!). After several unsuccessful attempts of smuggling the prince out, Alex died in the catacombs, and nobody knew who the Green Man was for over two hundred years – until Andi found the diary.

Back to Andi and Amade, the former has studied his life and work in detail and knew that one of his last compositions was titled “Fireworks”. After having spent time with him, she realised that it was inspired by the Green Man’s last performance. She also learnt several specific details for her thesis – Amade is said to have inspired “Radiohead” (whose vocalist is from my alma mater by the way 😀 ), but after listening to her iPod, he told her that “Radiohead” and “Led Zeppelin” inspired him to write again. That is where the quote above comes from. It is evidence of how an artistic work, be it a song, or a book, or a painting, can make a difference to someone, and even save someone’s life. It is devastating how some artists never knew how important their works are to people (one of the many reasons I love Dr Who’s Episode “Vincent and the Doctor”), such as Van Gogh. Andi seems to understand it better than anyone. Moreover, Donnelly split the books into three parts – “Hell”, “Purgatory” and “Paradise” and has given Andi a companion – a young musician named Virgil, paralleling the journey of “Inferno”‘s protagonist. Virgil was an ancient poet who is said to have influenced many. These two figures in Andi’s life, Amade and Virgil, have had a profound effect on her throughout their work and it is one of the most relatable things about “Revolution” – all of us have been influenced by works at some point in our lives and I firmly believe that authors of said works are the ones with power. Alex seems to agree – she says: “Stand on a stage and hold the hearts of men in your hands. Make them laugh with a gesture, cry with a word. Make them love you. And you will know what power is.” Alex, however, seems to disagree with Andi, to an extent, about the beautiful things like music and fireworks – she says that “beautiful things never last“. I, nonetheless, believe that Alex didn’t mean it in that context – while a song may end, a rose may wilt and a racket may extinguish in the sky, its effect lasts for a long time, if not forever. Even her own actions have inspired Amade’s composition I talked about above, which is known (in “Revolution”‘s verse) to this day. And of course, there are too many examples of artists, writers, composers, inventors, being inspired and creating things that leave a lasting impact, in turn, on others. So, no Alex – beautiful things do last, it’s just that the way they last is not always visible to the naked eye.

I would just like to quickly add that knowing first- and second-hand about the effect of creative works on people is one of the main reasons I am hoping to work in intellectual property law (not to mention it’s a really dynamic area of law). 

 

“Happiness was useless to me. It was heartache that filled my purse. What happy man has need of Shakespeare?”

Alex was, most important of all, an actress. A performer. Her art influenced people – it was one of those “beautiful things” she dismissed as short-lived. However, she was not a happy person, and neither were the people who enjoyed her art the most. This goes back to my discussion of the impact of art. What Donnelly arguably tries to do here, and with Andi’s own music, as well as with Andi’s mother’s art, is to say that inspiration is fueled by sadness. Andi says, to her mother’s doctor, the following:

It’s a good thing you and your pills weren’t around a few hundred years ago or there never would have been a Vermeer or a Caravaggio. You’d have drugged ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and ‘The Taking of Christ’ right the hell out of them”

Andi’s mother is a French artist, and she is amazing. The tragedy of Truman’s death has had an immense impact on her art and Andi understands that it’s the only thing that gets her through the day. She is the same at the start of the book, but with music. She also understands the negative, ugly side of sadness being a driving factor for an artist, which Donnelly does not attempt to glamourise in any way.

Inspiration is a major theme in “Revolution” and, as discussed above, the author and the characters truly understand that art is the child of profound emotions – more often than not sadness or anger but sometimes, happiness. I myself, as a writer, understand it better than anyone, and I can honestly say that “Revolution”, together with Donnelly’s other work, “A Gathering Light”, has been a big source of emotions and therefore inspiration for me.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list of quotes that make me laugh or weep, but I won’t try anymore – simply because I believe that no further words are necessary.

 

Dreamcast

Andi/Alex – Samantha Barks

 

Recommendations
You would love “Revolution” if you liked:

“Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein

“A Northern/Gathering Light” by Jennifer Donnelly – also a fantastic work of literature by Mrs Donnelly

“Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo

And any fan of “Radiohead” or “Led Zeppelin” or other contemporary artists influenced by the classics would love this book.

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