YA Friday: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Friday, May 20, 2011

Title: Revolution
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Genre: YA, historical fiction
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2010
Source: Library

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly tells two parallel stories. The first is that of Andi, flunking out of her senior year, floundering in a broken family after the death of her younger brother, and solaced only by her guitar. The other is that of Alexandrine, a young revolutionary in eighteenth century Paris. The girls' stories combine in a terrifying and moving adventure that teaches both the meaning of rising above a world that can be dark.

This is one of the smartest books I have ever read. Page after page, I was blown away at Donnelly's finesse in bringing together Andi and Alex's stories. The plot is complex and multi-layered, but never obscure or confusing. She interweaves the two main story lines with a third character that intersects them both - the (unfortunately fictional) classical guitarist Amade Malherbeau, subject of Andi's senior thesis and Parisian contemporary of Alex. The story is structured into three parts, following Dante's Divine Comedy and prefaced by quotes - Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Andi's Brooklyn world and Alex's Paris world are both meticulously detailed, making the story come to life in a vivid way.

The characters Donnelly created were also compelling, although the plot is the star of this story. Andi's friend Virgil is a fascinating character, someone who has already achieved what seems to elude her - the ability to have stability and grace in a mixed-up, unfair world. Virgil is edgy with his graveyard cab driving job and his intimate knowledge of the catacombs, yet sweet with his need for music and concern for Andi. I also loved Malherbeau, the guitarist Andi studies, although I think if I explain why I will spoil some of the best surprises of the story, so please read it and find out exactly why I loved him. Alex was also an interesting character - she was propelled by many different motives, and played many different roles, a fitting life for an actress. She changes drastically from the beginning of her account of the revolution to the end, and makes an interesting case for herself as one who is by no means innocent but seeks to redeem herself.

I liked Andi, too, but she became a little tiresome for me from time to time because of all her anger and raging and pill-popping. However, it wasn't the character that annoyed me - it was her personality. Does that make sense? I think Andi had to be that way, and Donnelly did a great job of realizing her. She's just a frustrating character at times. However, she especially goes through a lot of growth in the novel, which is always a good sign for me.

As I said before, Donnelly does a fantastic job of incorporating small details to make the world come alive, especially the eighteenth century of Paris (I've never read such vivid descriptions of smells). However, occasionally the writing annoying to me in a nit-picky way. This may be because Andi was narrating in the first person for most of the story, and occasionally Andi would start to bother me. Some of the descriptions are told in a breathless, fragmented style that seemed a little melodramatic for me. Example:
One note, just one note. That's all I need. But it's hard tonight. So hard that I stop playing. And look up at the sky instead. It's black. No moon. No stars.
Like I said, nothing technically wrong with this, but it didn't work for me. But Donelly definitely redeems herself with some gorgeous and unique passages, like this one:
Vermeer and Rembrandt and da Vinci put together couldn't do it. Even if they got the shade right - a clear, startling Windex blue - they'd still fail because Truman's eyes were totally transparent. That whole windows to the soul thing? That was him. When you looked into his eyes, you could see everything he thought and felt and loved. You could see Lyra and Pan. The Temple of Dendur. Bottle rockets. Garry Kasparov. Beck. Kyuma. Chili cheese dogs. Derek Jeter. And us.
Nit-picking aside, this book blew me away and was quite possibly one of my best reads this year. It was one of those books that, after I finished, I didn't want to start reading another book because I just wanted to keep thinking about this one. It made me want to learn more about the French Revolution and Amade Malherbeau (until I googled him and found out he wasn't real... sadness). Cheesy tidbit - I went to the piano and started playing through some of the Bach preludes I played in high school because Andi always talks about playing Bach. It is a book that makes a powerful impression.

Readability: Very readable.
Plot: 5
Characters: 4
Writing: 4
Personal Response: 5
Overall: 4.5


  1. Just wanted to say that I love your YA Fridays feature :)

  2. @Tiny Library - Thank you! I love reading the books for it. :)

  3. Nice review, and I think you nailed this rich, complex and beautiful book. I TOTALLY disagree with the passage that bothered you, though!! I thought it was incredibly beautiful -- and heartbreaking. Just darkness -- no moon, no stars -- what a metaphor for depression and despair. I loved the way the stars themselves played a role in this book. Andi can't see them for so long -- and then, well ... and then. My goodness, what a moment when she finally can. Like Dante said when he at last exited Hell: "Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars."

    Anyway, nice to see a smart review for such an intelligent and multi-layered book ...

  4. Dude! YES! I SO agree! (Except for the nit-picking :P I thought Andi was pretty much perfect) The only thing I'm not sure I *loved* was a certain part at the end... I like my books to be firmly one camp or the other... (Trying to be vague to avoid spoilers...) BUT I thought this was one of the most powerful books I've read. Ever. SO amazing. Donnelly writes grief like you would not believe! It broke my heart.

  5. Yes! Her grief is so poignant in all of her books. This is one of the books I just can't stop thinking about, even now. I didn't even want to pick up another book after finishing it.


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