By: Jennifer Donnelly
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: October 12th, 2010
BROOKLYN: Andi Alpers is on the edge. She’s angry at her father for leaving, angry at her mother for not being able to cope, and heartbroken by the loss of her younger brother, Truman. Rage and grief are destroying her. And she’s about to be expelled from Brooklyn Heights’ most prestigious private school when her father intervenes. Now Andi must accompany him to Paris for winter break.
PARIS: Alexandrine Paradis lived over two centuries ago. She dreamed of making her mark on the Paris stage, but a fateful encounter with a doomed prince of France cast her in a tragic role she didn’t want—and couldn’t escape.
Two girls, two centuries apart. One never knowing the other. But when Andi finds Alexandrine’s diary, she recognizes something in her words and is moved to the point of obsession. There’s comfort and distraction for Andi in the journal’s antique pages—until, on a midnight journey through the catacombs of Paris, Alexandrine’s words transcend paper and time, and the past becomes suddenly, terrifyingly present.
I will say, first and foremost, this book is not for everyone. I had a very fierce argument with a friend about it a few years back, because she was simply unable to get through the first few chapters. She thought the main character to be annoying, obtuse, inappropriate and ungrateful, and furthermore she shied away from reading a story that delved into the deepest, darkest secret of the French Terror. If you like nice and non-depressed characters, happy endings, and books that don’t involve the French Catacombs, you might want to rethink reading this one. Otherwise, come along.
NOT that all of the points my friend made were invalid. Andi Alpers is annoying, obtuse, inappropriate and ungrateful. To hammer in the point, our first image of her is of her skipping class at her hideously expensive private school in New York to go smoke weed with her classmates, almost all of whom are extremely rich and/or famous, or belong to rich and famous parents. It’s clear that she doesn’t get along with these people, nor do they particularly appreciate having her around, which begs the question of why she’s even hanging out with them (I think it’s to hone her sarcasm on subjects too high to really notice). So, first impressions are difficult. But at the same time, reasons are given for her abrasiveness and difficulties. Her parents have divorced in the wake of a truly horrific loss, and she’s living with a mother who has utterly forsaken the real world. Andi herself feels extreme guilt, and is on antidepressants to keep her from thinking about suicide more than once a chapter. She’s raggedy and broken inside, and part of her porcupine exterior is to keep people from noticing just how broken she is. The only thing that keeps her somewhat sane is her love for music.
A few chapters in, the New York Rich Kid story is broken up by the arrival of Andi’s father, a celebrated geneticist, after hearing that Andi’s about to fail out of her school. Andi’s feelings for him are clear–they don’t get along–but that doesn’t stop him from placing her mother in a mental asylum and taking her with him to Paris. Once there, she becomes embroiled in her father’s project: DNA testing of a very small heart that could possibly have come from Louis-Charles, the last Dauphin of France. She tries her best to focus on her own project, a thesis project on composer Amade Malherbeau, rather than focus on the similarities between Louis-Charles and her late brother Truman. But there are startling connections between Truman, Louis-Charles, Amade Malherbeau, and Virgil, a taxi-driver and rapper who tries to help Andi out of her dark place. And, when she discovers a 200-year-old diary by Alexandrine Parais, she can’t help but be drawn into the world of the Terror.
This book is, as I have mentioned, not an easy read. Andi is a difficult character to like, but I always find myself having a soft spot for her. I’m not sure how many readers will be able to relate to depression, but probably a lot of them can relate to smaller things, like her struggle to get along with her father–throughout the book, they keep trying and failing to relate to each other. Not everyone can relate to Andi’s love of music, but we can understand how it redeems her. We can all admire Virgil, a rapper who’s struggling with his place in Parisian society as the son of Tunisian immigrants, who despite Andi’s prickliness truly wants to help her. We can coo over how their mutual passion for music brings them together.
Looking beyond the characters, the book is well-crafted. It took me a second read-through to fully understand it, but I loved the correlation between Truman and Louis-Charles. I knew the basic history of the French Terror, but the lines Donnelley drew were fascinating, like between Maximilien Robespierre and the New York madman Maximillian R. Peters, obsessed with revolution despite the consequences. The story of Malherbeau and the ‘Green Man’, who shot off fireworks as a memorial to the Dauphin, is impossible to dislike. The ties to history are all very real, very clear, and they bring a lot of understanding to a difficult time. Details like the Catacombs, the Victim’s Balls and the Guillotine bring it to life.
More fully, I think that Andi’s story is a beautiful one. She’s the driving point of the plot, and I think one of the best parts of the book is seeing her struggles, how she falls down and picks herself up, struggles with dark thoughts but keeps going. Her decision to try to live is not the climax, for which I’m grateful (that would be too sappy), but it’s an important decision. And at the end, watching her find acceptance of Truman’s death, you want to cheer. It’s a very real book about depression, which I appreciate. There’s no miraculous healing. At the end of the story, it’s clear that Andi still has a few issues to clear up. But the emphasis is that she’s taken the first steps to healing. It’s a story that gives hope.
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.