Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Book Review: Jennifer Donnelly, Historical Fiction Writer Extraordinaire

So I don't think I actually gushed to you guys about my love for this book:

In any case, REVOLUTION is an absolutely amazing French Revolution story. Jennifer Donnelly truly has a gift for weaving multiple stories together, and this is one of those few "modern-day character falls back into the past" stories that does not make me scoff a bit. She makes it work. And both of the protagonists in REVOLUTION, the one in modern-day and the one in 1795, are both written in such a beautifully tragic way. They are both so broken, but it comes across as poignant rather than whiny.

The other day, I just finished A NORTHERN LIGHT, Donnelly's first YA novel.

Good God, but can she write historical fiction. This book also displays Donnelly's amazing talent for weaving together seemingly disparate stories, in this case the real letters of Grace Brown, who was murdered in 1906 in the Adirondacks, and the fictional life of Mattie Gokey, a girl who has to balance her love of words and learning with her responsibilities to her dairy farming family. The story bends history very slightly, but the whole thing melds into a seamless narrative.

Mattie also showcases Donnelly's gift with words. She's the kind of author who makes you just want to drink in every single word she says, and reread various passages over and over because they are just so beautiful. This is a style that I long to reach in my own writing - her words are poignant, fluid, pitch-perfect; she can pull the beauty out of tragedy in a way that amazes me.

Seriously, guys, go read Jennifer Donnelly's books. She's also written three historical fiction books for adults, and the next time I get to go to the library, you can bet I'll be hunting those down.


  1. Yes! Couldn't agree with you more -- these are important books for anyone who can appreciate really profound writing. Writers should study them, and readers benefit from VERY close attention when reading them. So much happens below the surface - the more you dig, the more treasure you find. I think Revolution, in particular, is an out-and-out masterpiece for the ages -- not just among YA books a la To Kill A Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies, but among all books. Not since Ulysses in college (and, arguably, T.C. Boyle at his "Worlds End" best) have I read a book with such literary and linguistic depth (and bravado, for that matter - Donnelly's definitely showing off, which someone with her talent should be encouraged to do!). I mean, the layers just keep on going - I've read the book four or five times, and discover something new Donnelly hid in there each time. Andi and Alex? Their names are an anagram -- meaning ... well, I think they're meant to be the same character living one timeless tragic story (hence the temporal fuzziness of Andi's weird trip in the catacombs) that's happening right now just as it did 200 years ago. Max R. Peters = Max Robespierre; both prince-killing revolutionary madmen (Truman is, of course, a prince; the spoiled Brooklyn kids are corrollaries of the pre-Rev French aristocracy). Virgil is Virgil, of course -- Dante's Virgil (Rev is a parable based on The Inferno), the guide who escorts our narrator through hell until she can finally "behold the stars" -- which, of course, she keeps looking for throughout the book and can only see when she's out of the abyss of her internal revolution. Andi's/Truman's key came from the early 19th c. Paradise theater ... Alexandrine (Paradis) dreamed of a life in the theater and would have/could have escaped Paris and arrived in NY just about the time the Paradise opened.

    This list gets very long very fast ... and longer with each read.

    Finally, for writers and readers: savor Andi/Alex's epiphany. It's really and truly one of the great hopeful moments I know of in all literature. I won't presume to describe it or explain it (I can't do either one justice), but it's the stuff that changes lives.

  2. Ooh ooh, Revolution is totally on my bookshelf right now, waiting to be read. Poor thing, every time I go to read it, an essay's like "Hey, remember me? I'm due tomorrow! And I'm 2500 words! LOL!". Stupid essays.

    But a Northern Light sounds equally fascinating, I may have to beg my library to get it in. Thanks for the awesome recommendations!