Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly is a tour de force YA novel. It's realistic fiction most of the way through, but with just enough historical fiction and fantasy to make it a somewhat genre-defying. At its heart, though, it's a problem novel about a girl, Andi, who loses her 10-year-old brother Truman to a freak accident, loses her father to an affair, and then loses her mother to mental instability following her brother's death. When her father institutionalizes her mother for treatment, he takes Andi with him to Paris where she is told to work on her senior thesis. She's just motivated enough to do that, because the thesis is about music, and guitar playing is the only thing that makes her want to live. She chugs anti-depressants at near suicidal levels, and yet this does not keep her from being suicidal. Go figure. Donnelly's descriptions of the raw grief at losing so much so irretrievably in a single year are all the more moving because they are understated, buried behind layers of Andi's defenses.
Paris brings new friends, one a particularly beautiful boy, Virgil, who loves music as much as she does. It also bring historical documents for her thesis and a chance discovery of the diary of a girl about her age who lived through the French Revolution. Andi has no idea how intellectual she is to keep all of these curiosities spinning at once, and Donnelly mostly handles the multiple plot developments well, though it takes all 472 pages to do so. The diary of the girl proves the most interesting document, and we read it along with Andi in its entirety. In it, the girl Alex strives to save the neglected and dying child Louis-Charles, who would be king had the monarchy not just been overthrown. Andi's loss of her brother Truman and Alex's ultimate inability to save the child king are parallel griefs. The gruesomeness of revolutionary Paris is, in fact, not dissimilar from Andi's witnessing of her own brother's death. And death, loss, the smell of sadness and desperation, all saturate the pages of this novel until very near the end, when the redemption is appropriately partial and imperfect. And honest and real because of it partialness and imperfection.
This is a book of grief, about all the unexpected shards and fragments that must be woven together to recover from an immense, enormous, life-shattering set of losses. This is the kind of healing that doesn't happen overnight, the kind that needs constant attention and falters readily, like a helpless creature fumbling to walk. A few steps at a time are the best you can hope for, and if falling is not accompanied by breaking, as long as you're well enough to take more steps tomorrow, that's healing.
"It was nice. And weird. And tender. I'm not used to tender. It's a fossil, that word. Conditions changed and it died out. Like the woolly mammoth. It just couldn't live in the same world as dick box. Ho dog. Or wiener cousins." (p. 162)
"I'm tired, so tired. And weak. And everything's fading. But suddenly I'm laughing. I can't help it. Because I understand now. I know what Alex wanted to tell me. I know the answer. I know how her diary ends. Not with a smear of blood, not with death. [...] The world goes on, stupid and brutal, but I do not. Can't you see? I do not." (p. 456)