A sprawling novel that crosses oceans, cultures and centuries, Revolution is a painstakingly detailed look at growing up a troubled teenage girl. Weaving back and forth between the lives of Andi Alpers, a typical Brooklyn private-school student, and Alexandrine, an aspiring French actress who comes of age during the French Revolution, Jennifer Donnelly’s transcendent prose allows readers to shuttle through time with the greatest of ease. The author doesn’t shy away from the meaty issues we grapple with in adolescence: the nature of sorrow and grief, the formation of political consciousness and the power of art. Here, Donnelly talks to Kirkus about her love of James Joyce, spying on teenagers in Paris and the petrified heart that began it all.
Tell us briefly about Revolution.
It’s a big, broiling novel! Without giving too much away, it’s about two teenage girls.
Andi Alpers, who’s growing up in modern day Brooklyn, and Alexandrine, a street actor during the French Revolution in Paris. Their stories intersect when Andi visits Paris with her father and finds Alexandrine’s diary in a guitar case. She finds comfort and hope, but ultimately, it’s not enough to keep her off the self-destructive path she’s on. She needs something to help her, which she finds unexpectedly, during an evening visit to the underground catacombs.
Why the French Revolution?
The idea for this book came to me 10 years ago now. I was reading the New York Times, and an article caught my eye, “Geneticists’ Latest Probe: Heart of the Dauphin.” It showed pictures of a priest by an altar at the Cathedral of St. Denis, which is where they keep everything from the French royal family. And in that picture, I noticed a very old handblown glass urn with a small heart in it. I was transfixed. It had been brought there in the ’70s and only been tested in ’99, but it was found to be that of Louis-Charles, the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. After they were executed...their two children—Louis Charles and Marie Thérèse—remained imprisoned. She survived [and] was released from prison in 1795 after Robespierre’s death. But Louis Charles, as the male heir to the throne, was an enormous threat to the revolution. To prevent his escape, or others ruling in his name, he was kept in prison and re-educated. He was essentially walled-up alive, in a cold dark room, with no companionship, no fire. He grew very sick, lost his mind and died at the age of 10. What happened to this child was unspeakable. Needless to say, I was very upset. I couldn’t believe that the human aspirations that gave birth to the idea of Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité could devolve into such cruelty.
How much research goes into a book like this to create a realistic version of life in 18th-century France?
Oceans and oceans. It never stops. I read for years straight, three or four years. I read all the big, well-known, esteemed texts on the Revolution and plundered their notes and bibliographies for more books. Apart from the academic research, I spent time in Paris—in archives, museums, catacombs, cemeteries. Spending time in that place, whether I was getting lunch in a café or buying a croissant, I never stopped observing. I read as I was writing, while I was fact-checking. I’d still be researching if there were no such things as deadlines. I think that I’ll be an eternal student of the French Revolution. I really fell in love with this time period.
Music is obviously highly important to Andi. What about you?
I’m not a musician. I don’t play anything, can’t read music but I adore music. It’s what sustains Andi. She’s on the verge of suicide, and music is the only thing that can sustain her, pull her through it. What pulled me through when I was a teenager was the work of other writers; with Andi, it’s the work of other musicians. She can see the DNA of the work coming through the past all the way to her. I wanted to get across to teenagers that there’s such an amazing artistic legacy that exists for you—whether you’re a musician, a painter, a writer. Others have gone before you, struggled and you can reach for that, grasp onto that and learn through them. I never had the money to go to grad school. But I always felt I could go into a bookstore, pull down Joyce or Hemingway and have a master class in my hand.
Donnelly’s five favorite coming-of-age novels:
Grimm’s Fairy Tales: “I read it in third grade, and it confirmed what I’d always suspected—that the world is a deceptive and dangerous place. Furthermore, it’s not the trolls, witches and wolves that are the worst of it—it’s the stepmother who says ‘Get ride of the kids,’ and the woodcutter father who listens to her. The best thing about Grimm’s is that it doesn’t just show children the darkness of the world, it also shows them they can beat it. Keep your wits about you, be brave, and you’ll get out of the witch’s kitchen.”
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: “Because Meg saves Charles Wallace from IT with love.”
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: “No explanation needed really. My whole life, I’ve wanted to be as wise and good as Atticus Finch. I’m still failing miserably, but I’ll never stop trying.”
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: “I read it in 11th grade and again in college, and it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with James Joyce. The story was so weird and different and new to me, and yet it was familiar because of the way Joyce so perfectly describes childhood perceptions and sensations.”
The Passion by Jeannette Winterson: “I read it when I was finally beginning to be a grown up, and it taught me it’s possible to be not one thing or the other, but different and sometimes even opposite things—to be of the past and in the present, masculine and feminine, wise and foolish, heartbroken by the world, yet still in love with it.”
For a complete list of the great historical novels for teens featured in Kirkus’ Best of 2010, click here.
For a complete list of great contemporary novels for teens featured in Kirkus’ Best of 2010 for teens, click here.
Delacorte / October / 9780385737630; 9780385906784 (Lib. Ed.) / $18.99; $21.99