From Brooklyn to Paris and from the 18th-century to the 21st, Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution covers a vast spread of geography, culture, and time. Emily Janice Card does the heavy lifting in her narration of Andi Alpers, a Brooklyn prep school misfit and gifted musician with enough life experience for someone three times her age. Card delivers Andi’s heartbreak and depression with remarkable awareness, her intonation constantly evolving and adapting to the development of the character. When Andi finds a mysterious archaic diary while accompanying her father on a trip to Paris, narrator Emma Bering voices a smaller but vital role as Alexandrine, a French actress living in Versaille as a companion to Louis Charles, son of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, in Revolution-era France. Card and Bering’s collaboration yields a stunning performance of an alliance between two women separated by three centuries. Revolution will charm Francophiles, historians, and musicians alike.
Following the tragic death of her younger brother and the divorce of her mother and father, Andi spirals into a severe depression. Arguably the most stable in this arrangement, her father, an award-winning genetics professor at Harvard, takes notice when he discovers that Andi is in danger of failing out of high school. He insists that she join him on a business trip to Paris to focus on writing her senior thesis and her mental wellness. Initially reluctant to leave her mother behind, Andi soon finds a reason to explore Paris — the diary written by Alexandrine detailing the final days of the French monarchy and the Reign of Terror.
The entanglement of Andi and Alexandrine’s storylines as Andi becomes engrossed in the diary offers a fascinating glimpse into both contemporary and 18th-century Paris. Donnelly’s striking construction of these two worlds is accompanied by Andi’s acute perception and passion for music of all eras. From Beethoven to Radiohead, music plays a central role in Andi’s emotional recovery and journey throughout Revolution. Card inhabits the music’s supporting role ardently.
Rich and Multi-Faceted Storytelling
Revolution presented the obsession with music and 18th-century France in the face of post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness. The combination of these added so many layers, I was immersed in Revolution for the entire duration of the audiobook. Living in contemporary times, Andi’s grief over the loss of her brother was palpable as she and her mother had completely fallen apart.
Despite her parents’ divorce, her father picked up the pieces and ensured her mother was put into proper care to aid her recovery. At the same time, he took Andi along with him to Paris over winter break, so that he could monitor her. There she chanced upon a diary that once belonged to a girl named Alexandrine. Through this old diary the past merged into reality for Andi. Whether this was the result of magical realism or hallucinations is up to the reader’s interpretation.
Between the Present and the Past
Alternating between 21st & 18th-century Paris worked well as these two time periods were so artfully intertwined. Readers who tend to pick books with modern settings over historical ones might find Revolution to be a good bridge into historical fiction as well. It detailed the French Revolution well through Alexandrine’s diary — this was evident in the references to the specific timeline of the revolution. The tensions rose even more through Andi’s investment in Alexandrine’s life. This led me to care a great deal for the story-within-the-story as well.
Intensity of Character
Andi was a very intense character. Even though she was almost failing out of high school in the aftermath of her brother’s death, she was very driven when it came to music. She took the subject seriously to the point that she lived and breathed music. In her search for the roots of her favourite musician, her heightened fixation on 18th-century France became very understandable. He hailed from that time and Andi was intent to learn more about him. In part, that was due to her thesis for school. However, it was very much driven by her neurosis, which was artfully presented in Revolution.
As an audiobook, Revolution aimed to be as realistic as possible. The voices of the narrators fit their characters very well. They were distinct and the French accent for Alexandrine made it that much more authentic. I appreciated the overall consistency, even if sometimes the pronunciation of the “r”s lapsed into a cross between English and French.
That One Gripe
This gripe I have with Revolution is a common one I seem to have with books — abrupt endings. I’m perfectly alright with open endings that expect the reader to imagine how life continues beyond the pages. However, I’m not such a fan when there’s so much ambiguity, the only telltale sign that the book is done is that it fails to continue.
There are no further pages to read, no further sections to listen to. The last two chapters and the epilogue felt so detached from the supposed resolution of the climax, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the book. After detailing so many part of the stories, surely a little more detail towards the end wouldn’t have hurt the book.