This is a new series for my blog, wherein I will discuss whatever book or books I’m reading or have just finished that week. Feel free to post in the comments what you’re reading this week, too, or your own thoughts about the books I discuss.
12/2/10: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly
A girl grieving over her brother’s death, her father’s estrangement and her mother’s descent into madness travels to Paris with her father to work on a school project. While there she stumbles upon the diary of a young actress from the time of the French Revolution who is tied up in intrigue surrounding the lost king, the child of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.
I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. I loved Donnelly’s A Northern Light. I am also writing about Paris in the past, although a hundred years later than the Revolution. I have lived in Paris, I love Paris, I have studied the French Revolution in Paris.
During my college Junior Year Abroad, I took a class at the Sorbonne that was all about the French Revolution and First Empire (under Napoleon). I remember reading about the Revolution in French while riding the bus past the Eiffel Tower and the National Assembly, and on the metro under even more monuments and points of national pride and interest.
But what most visitors to Paris don’t know is that the Sorbonne isn’t just one building in the Latin Quarter. It also offers classes at a building in the far north of the city, near the Porte de Clignancourt, a place only reachable by a long bus ride along the boulevards de ceinture (the outer boulevards that ring the city) or by metro with 2 or 3 changes. That is where I met once a week with hundreds of students to listen to a lecture by France’s premier Revolution historian (whose name is long lost to me – hey, it was 20 years ago). The final exam was one essay question dealing with the changes Napoleon instituted during his reign.
Anyway, back to the book. The first thing I noticed was its heft: 742 pages in large hardcover format. Holy Guacamole! It’s a bit intimidating. But how do you read a book? One page at a time. So I jumped in and I’m so glad I did. I’m not even halfway yet, but this is obviously a book to remember and discuss and gush over.
Jennifer Donnelly has done a ton of research. She captures modern day Brooklyn Heights and its rich, bored students, modern Paris, two-hundred-year-old Paris, and the music scene on two continents and in two time periods. Each of these worlds is completely believable and her characters leap off the pages.
The book brought up another memory for me. The diary in the book was hidden in the catacombs, a network of tunnels under the city that contain (or once contained)…um…well…human remains. When I was 19 I spent a summer working in Paris for a software company. One of the interns that summer was a young woman named Claude. She and her boyfriend brought me to a party in the catacombs. Music, dancing and drinks in a tunnel under Paris.
If Revolution can evoke such (twenty-year-old) memories for me, I’m sure it will put marvelous pictures in the heads of other readers, with or without your own Parisian experience.