Andi is a genius declared teenager failing her prestigious prep school because she's bent on self-destructing after her little brother died. Alexandrine is a French street performer trying desperately to save the life of a young boy from a horrible fate during the French revolution. This book runs their stories in parallel, and through reading about Alexandrine, Andi gains perspective on her own life and realizes that she may have something to live for after all.
Andi's father is a Nobel prize winning geneticist, now living with a younger woman. Her mother is a mentally unstable painter, who has painted nothing but portraits of her lost son since she died. Andi is failing all her subjects except music at her expensive private school, because music is the only thing that helps dull the pain and desperation she feels, blaming herself for the death of her brother Truman, and the subsequent disintegration of her entire family. She's heavily medicated, and plays her guitar until her fingers bleed, and constantly wonders if she'll have the nerve to end it all.
When her father discovers that she has not even submitted an outline for her senior thesis, and may fail all her courses, he steps in and forces her to come to Paris with him, after her mother has been committed to a psychiatric hospital. He is taking part in a large authentication project, where his historian friend wants to prove that he is in possession of the heart of the Dauphin Louis Charles, also known as the lost King Louis XVII, who was locked up and slowly neglected to death during the French Revolution. Seeing the pictures of the young boy, and hearing the story of his gruesome death does nothing to help Andi process the death of Truman, and she makes a deal with her father to be allowed to return home to New York as soon as possible.
While working frantically on her finishing her outline, Andi finds an old diary in a guitar case belonging to her father's historian friend. This diary is written by a young woman during the worst days of the French Revolution, and the writer, Alexandrine, is beseeching the reader to help save the lonely Dauphin of France from his doom. In the diary, Alexandrine tells the story of how she, the member of a poor acting and puppet show troupe, became the close companion of the Dauphin and chronicles the events leading up to and during the bloody and terrible revolution of France.
Alexandrine starts out wanting only to make money and notoriety so she can become a famous actress, but grows to love the sad, young royal she is hired to entertain. As the royal family are taken prisoner, she does her best to stay with him and tries to save him from the horrible fate the revolutionaries have in store for him. Andi is engrossed by her story, and unable to keep reading the diary, even when it takes precious time away from her thesis work. There are clear parallels in the story of the two young women, and having been unable to save her own brother, Andi desperately wants to see if Alexandrine will succeed in her mission, all the while knowing deep down, having seen the tiny heart her father is performing tests on, that she must surely be doomed.
Through Alex' diary, and her quest to if not save the Dauphin, then at least make sure he does not die alone and utterly abandoned, Andi gains more perspective on her own situation. While in France, she also befriends a bunch of musicians, who show her that despite the tragedy in her life, there may things to live for if she will only persevere.
I absolutely adore all three of Jennifer Donnelly's previous books, and they are among my all time favourite reads, which is unusual. So to say that I had high expectations for this book is an understatement. It is probably her weakest book so far, but considering the absolute brilliance of her previous three, her weakest effort is still miles beyond that of many other writers. She excellently portrays the despair of both young women, and vividly describes their situations. The historical parts of the novel are especially gripping, but Andi's journey through grief towards self-discovery is also fascinating. I found myself wishing that the subject of Andi's thesis, the fictional composer Amadé Malherbeau actually existed, as his music and the musical influences that Donnelly ascribes to him, sounded wonderful. I can happily recommend this book, as well as "A Gathering Light", "The Tea Rose" and "The Winter Rose" to anyone on the search of a good story.