(Note: technically, I read this book in 2010, but after the November start date previously established for Cannonball Read, plus I really wanted to review it. So there. I actually re-read the whole book, looking for one specific quote that I loved the first time through but didn’t save for myself in any way. Of course I didn’t find it. Dear self: if you’re considering a review, read with a Post-it nearby. They are really the best for marking a specific place on a page since you don’t own those fancy Page Nibs from Levenger.)
There’s a lot of pain in Revolution, in this book and the event and the concept. Andi is a high school senior at St. Anselm’s, a super fancy private school in Brooklyn. Her life has been falling completely apart since her younger brother Truman died in an accident 2 years ago, an accident Andi feels was totally her fault. She carries that guilt constantly; she still wears a key he’d found around her neck at all times. Her mother is struggling with depression and has retreated into painting Truman’s portrait over and over again, til she’s putting them on the ceiling because all the walls are full. Andi’s dad, a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, has left the family for a new life, pregnant girlfriend included, in Boston. Andi numbs her days with drugs and only finds worth in her music–her music teacher refuses to coddle her, saying Bach lost many children and a wife and used music to deal with his pain.
Unsurprisingly, Andi isn’t doing well in school and after her father finds out, he informs her that she will be coming to Paris with him over winter break and must finish the outline and introduction for her senior thesis on (fictional) French composer Amade Malherbeau while she’s there. Also, he’s sending her mother to the psych ward. At least Andi makes the doctor there remove the generic painting from the wall: “I couldn’t protect my mother from Dr. Feelgood but at least I’d saved her from Thomas Kinkade.”
In Paris, Andi and her dad stay with some old family friends, an historian and an artist. There, Andi finds an 18th century guitar case with a broken lock. Truman’s key opens the lock. In a hidden compartment, is a miniature portrait of a young boy, Truman’s 1700s doppelganger, and a diary written by Alexandrine Paradis, a player and companion to the dauphin Louis-Charles, the lost king of France, before and during the French Revolution. From this point forward, the diary entries are interspersed with Andi’s story. Andi is trying to research Malherbeau in a stuffy archive (complete with evil librarian) and at his house, but keeps being distracted by the diary, feeling like Alex is trying to send her a message.
Alex’s compelling diary describes the development of the French Revolution and the Terror from within, from someone who sees the royal family as people, not only as figureheads. She starts out just looking for advancement—times have been tough for her family who once produced plays but are now reduced to farting puppet shows. It is during one of these shows in the town of Versailles that “dancing a flatulent hornpipe” captures the fancy of the young, grieving Louis-Charles. Marie Antoinette has Alex and her family move to the palace and Alex ends up as the dauphin’s principal companion. While the royal family is imprisoned in the Tuileries, Alex spends her days with Louis-Charles and nights at the Palais Royale, reciting Shakespeare, Moliere and more. How she wishes to be a star, accolades and money showering her, but that is not to be for her. Alex eventually does find her fame as the Green Man, a mysterious figure with a price on his head, who sets of fireworks night after night. She meets her end in a different way and sympathizes with “Poor Ophelia. She was the smartest of them all, worth more than her toadying father, her dupe of a brother, and Prince Dither all put together. She alone knew that one must meet the world’s madness with more madness.” I do love that particular characterization of Hamlet—he’s a guy who talks a lot.
Andi is torn: she wants nothing more than to be back in Brooklyn, liberating her mother from the drug-induced haze of the hospital but French airport workers have gone on strike (Alex’s influence?). As she tells her mom’s doc on the phone after he reveals he took away mom’s art supplies: “She’s a painter, she needs to paint. … 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.” But she also needs to know what happens to Alex. So Andi spends her days with the diary and researching, and nights talking to Virgil, the totally hot cab driver/rapper she meets while busking. Also popping antidepressants, and deciding whether or not to kill herself.
Andi’s thesis is on the musical legacy of composer Malherbeau, and although he is invented, the ideas about musical legacies are very interesting and realistic. The 4 notes of sadness in a Floyd song, the tritone, the ability of music to capture emotion and truth. I don’t have the technical knowledge to specifically analyze Andi and her teacher’s assertions, but they sure do make sense.
The only real problem I have is near the end of the book. There is some surprisingly magic-y stuff after 400 pages of realism, and I still did love the book. The girls’ stories have different endings, but Andi learns from Alex’s loss that, while Truman is gone, she has things to work for and look forward to. She can create and live, not just bury her problems. She can look for songs—special songs, perhaps that contain the whole world.
“’Virgil wants to write the perfect song … A song with the whole world in it. The good and the bad, the beauty, the pain,’ [Virgil’s friend] Jules says.
‘Christmas and funerals, coffee and rain. Bruises and roses and shit and champagne,’ Virgil raps.
‘Cigarettes, garbage cans, silver skull rings. These are a few of my favorite things,’ I add in my best Julie Andrews voice.”
There are so many funny moments like this, even in the midst of anger and pain.