Book review: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

History is relived through the eyes of an angry, sad girl who, in the midst of her downward spiral, finds that sometimes the biggest revolutions that happen are the ones that occur within.

Disclaimer: This review also appears on, a South African women's lifestyle website where I manage, amongst other things, an online books section.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (Boomsbury Publishing)
Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution is a book that I bought on a whim, about three years ago. 

I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t read it back then – given that the book blogosphere were pretty much raving about it since it was first released – but, having gorged myself on Dystopian fiction for the last couple of months , I finally decided to pick this one up.

And am I glad I did, because Revolution not only proved to be one of the best YA historical fiction reads I’ve read, but it’s also reminded me how much I’ve neglected a genre that I’ve always adored.

If you've ever read Sepulchre or Labyrinth by Kate Mosse (another author whose work I adore), you'll know that she's fond of employing a dual-narrative structure, alternating between the past and present; telling the stories through the eyes of two different women.

Revolution is a novel that employs a similar tactic; one that I'm becoming even more fond of than I was before.

The juxtaposition between cities and landscapes of today, against the backdrop of a yesteryear-come-to-life is something that makes me want to relive that in all of its contemporary and historical glory.

Modern day Brooklyn, New York, introduces us to Andi Alpers.

Broken, sad, rage-fuelled Andi. 

A girl who once had it all together, but lost it when her younger brother died.  A girl who, because of those circumstances, hates her father for leaving, is forced to look after a mother who’s not coping, and who herself, is walking on the edge of suicide.

The only thing keeping her going?

Her love and passion for her musical gift. Andi is an extraordinarily talented guitarist and takes comfort in playing until her fingers bleed.

It’s only when she’s on the verge of failing her grades , that Andi’s estranged father intervenes and takes her with him to Paris in order to complete her thesis on Amadé Malherbeau, a French Composer who lived during the period of The French Revolution.

Expecting to hate every minute of her time there, Andi is surprised when she stumbles upon an old guitar case (guitar included, much to her delight) and a hidden compartment which contains the diary of a young girl who lived during Revolutionary France.

From the diary entries, we’re taken back to Paris, 1795, where the story of Alexandrine Paradis, a young street performer, comes to life.

Doing her best to survive in a tumultuous world where France was not just experiencing a revolution, but where  a reign of terror would follow and civil war whispered around every single corner, Alexandrine does all that she can to provide for herself and immediate relatives by performing in the streets.

When she inadvertently gains the attention of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s youngest son with a puppeteering act, her life takes an unexpected turn that will soon see her at the heart of the Revolution; changed from being a girl with a self-serving purpose, to one who’ll defy everything and everyone in her quest to try and save the life of that same 10-year old boy.

Revolution is truly, truly an incredible read.

Not least because of the beauty of the writing (although, the book is already a winner based on that alone), but because the story is so intricately layered and has such a tremendous amount of depth to it, that you're not just merely getting an account of a historic event, but also a poignant story which interweaves itself between the real version of events.

If you're a fan of music and history, combined with heroines that push beyond the limits of their fear for the sake of loved ones, then Revolution will be right up your alley. 

Andi and Alex are characters, whom at first glance, only have their love of their charges in common, but it soon becomes apparent that each of them have physical and internal battles that overlap. 

These girls' lives are intertwined in a way that's riveting and poignant and will have you rooting for both of them, in spite of the fact that they both, initially, aren't characters you'd necessarily want to have as your best friend.

Andi , especially, is not particularly likeable during the first few chapters. Grief-stricken by her loss and angry at the world, she makes no bones about how much she hates everyone and everything around her.  Her words are cutting and cruel and she says what she says with the intent to hurt.

Alex, on the other hand, is initially unlikeable for a completely different reason.  Her reasons for wanting to get close to the young boy she's put in charge of, is one that starts of as being nothing short of mercenary. 

To be fair though, while she certainly wants to make a name for herself, she does have somewhat of a Robin Hood complex going on, and does her best to provide for her family.

The dynamics and how these characters grow throughout the novel will soon have you singing a different tune altogether. 

You'll weep for their plights and you'll root for them as they navigate through times fraught with angst, a quest for musical knowledge and healing (in Andi's case), to mutiny, war and a desperate need to survive long enough for the sake of a young boy.   

In Alex's words:

“I will go out again this very night with my rockets and fuses. I will blow them straight out of their comfortable beds. Blow the rooftops off their houses. Blow the black, wretched night to bits. I will not stop. For mad I may be, but I will never be convenient.”

Feisty and courageous isn't she?

There's even some romance in the book (who can resist a boy who composes his own music and sings a girl to sleep when she's at her lowest point), although that certainly isn't the main focus here. 

Rather, I think the book focuses on the very aspect of different kinds of war; be it a physical one, or the battle within ourselves. 

Not only that, but it's a beautiful, brutal and bloody tale of music and ghosts of the past. It’s a tale of guillotines and massacres, and a tale of romance and catacombs.

It’s a story where the dead come alive and history is relived through the eyes of an angry, sad girl who, in the midst of her downward spiral, finds that sometimes the biggest revolutions that happen are the ones that occur within.

It's one of the best historical YA novels I’ve ever read.


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