by Jennifer Donnelly
This YA novel is essentially historical fiction with a twist. The main character, Andi Alpers, lives in present day New York, but a set of circumstances sends her overseas to live with her father where she discovers a secret journal written by a girl, Alexandrine Paradis, involved in the French Revolution. The book follows Andi’s present life, but includes excerpts from Alexandrine’s diary. And the twist comes when Andi finds herself transported back into 1795.
The book immediately pulls you in as we are introduced to Andi – angry and guilt-ridden – who gets pleasure from biting comments made to her classmates. She hurts and she wants others to hurt as well. Her grades have fallen, she has lost most of her friends within her exclusive private school, and it becomes obvious that she suffers from depression mostly brought on by a tragic accident, which took the life of her younger brother. Add to this the fact that her mother seems to have lost her grip on reality and her father has left them for a younger woman and it becomes clear why Andi is in pain.
Andi harbors guilt over the accident, the details of which are only revealed later in the book, and repeatedly thinks about suicide. Her only solace comes from her music. When she plays the guitar, she can lose herself in it. She can release her emotions, express herself, through the music.
As a character, her pain is realistic and her reactions relatable. She is possessed by inner demons and as a reader, she leaves you fascinated, empathetic, and curious to know more. Donnelly did a wonderful job bringing to life the true thoughts and actions of a young girl battling severe depression. Andi is not unlike many teenagers who hide their pain under a tough exterior and secretly hope for someone to love them enough to help pull them out of the darkness.
After learning that she is failing school, her father reemerges into her life – with his own guilt and inner demons. During her winter break, he takes her to Paris where he is working on a project involving the identification of a heart, which has been preserved for a couple hundred years and is thought to belong to the young prince of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
The diary of Alexandrine has been hidden inside an antique guitar-case that Andi finds. Inside of telling her father about her find, she gets caught up in Alexandrine’s story. So caught up, in fact, that she is transported back in time to finish Alexandrine’s mission.
Donnelly’s book was engaging and unique, but what I loved most was how much I learned about the French Revolution. To be honest, before reading this novel, I knew very, very little. This book teaches as well as entertains. Often, we hear more about the wrongdoings of the royals in power and our hearts and bias go to the poor rebels. This novel shows us both sides. We not only get to witness the king and queen’s obsession with luxury – ultimately their downfall as their kingdom suffers from poverty – but we also get to see that there is corruption within the ranks of the rebel faction. True to life, neither side is completely good nor evil.
Some moments in the book seemed to drag and I was a bit disappointed that Andi didn’t “transport” into the past until far later in the book than I expected, but it was a good read. And thinking back on it, the reason for this late transportation makes complete sense.
Donnelly kept me guessing until the end as to the outcome of the lives of Alexandrine and the little prince, as well as the true story behind Andi’s brother’s death. And, of course, this made it hard to put the book down since I was invested in learning the answers.
There are many lessons to be learned from this novel. But ultimately, it drives home the fact that we are not perfect. We make mistakes, but that we can work to redeem ourselves.