Revolver | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Last Updated: 01/19/2017 11:28 am
  • Jennifer May

When you visit Jennifer Donnelly in her Dutchess County home, high on a hilltop with swoony views of the Catskills, you may wonder if you’ve entered some other century. Roses tumble from urns, flanking an entry with neoclassical columns and marble floors, where an inquisitive greyhound greets visitors. Two Hudson River-style canvases lean against walls, still unframed. An upstairs hall sports a sectional street map of 18th-century Paris.

“It was built in the 1980s,” says the author, a striking blonde with expressive dark eyes. She explains that the house was gutted by a Wall Street tycoon and once played party house to a rock star’s entourage. The Hudson River canvasses? Painted by a former tenant in Brooklyn. The map? It’s research.

Donnelly has a talent for straddling centuries, as her just-released Revolution (Delacorte, 2010) attests. Ostensibly a young-adult novel, this tale of two rebel teen girls, one from contemporary Brooklyn and one from revolution-era Paris, is sure to find fans among adult readers, especially those who like their historical fiction brimming with messy, exuberant life.

“It’s very important to me that history lives and breathes—I don’t want it to be cod liver oil,” says Donnelly. In her hands, it’s more like Red Bull.

Revolution has an impeccably hip soundtrack (Natalie Merchant, another local century-straddler, appears in the acknowledgments). The novel begins in the dark throes of privilege. Seventeen-year-old Andi is a fiercely talented guitarist, her passion for music all that prevents her from drowning in grief and guilt after the death of her beloved younger brother. Overmedicating, flirting with suicide, and ignoring her studies at an elite private school, she’s whisked off to Paris by her absentee father. When she opens the secret compartment of an antique guitar case and finds the diary of Alexandrine Paradis, a teenage street performer swept up in the Terror, her life takes an unexpected and dangerous turn.

The Paris catacombs become the path through Andi’s private hell, accompanied by a hunky Tunisian-French cabbie named Virgil, who shares Andi’s talent and introduces her to the underground music scene—literally—at a hallucinogenic venue known as The Beach. (Yes, it’s real, though Donnelly was “too claustrophobic” to venture an illegal entry on her Paris research trips; the official tour of the catacombs’ boneyards was enough.) Since Revolution’s epigraphs are drawn from The Divine Comedy, Virgil’s unlikely name is no accident. “Dante was also in a dark wood—he was older than Andi, in his thirties, but also in despair, on the verge of suicide,” says Donnelly, adding with a grin, “If you’re going to ride somebody’s coattails, it might as well be Dante.”

All three sections of The Divine Comedy end with the word “stars,” and when Virgil leads Andi above ground, she lifts her face to the night sky. “I want to tell teens, you will get through this dark time—there is light, there are stars, and you will see them again,” asserts Donnelly, with a fervor that sounds authentically adolescent. Indeed, she says quietly, “I struggled with depression at that age, and have struggled with it subsequently.”

Who was her own Virgil? “So many writers, teachers, professors. They gave me the key to the castle, opened my eyes to the power and solace of literature,” she says. “I was so sustained by reading, by the idea that generations of writers had been there before me, that every time I went into a library and took a book off the shelf, there was a master class in my hands.”

The master class on Donnelly’s shelves has a very eclectic curriculum. There are research books with titles like Atlas du Paris Souterrain; five different editions of Ulysses (“James Joyce is my desert island guy”); The Invention of Hugo Cabret; Stephen King stacked atop E. M. Forster. “I grew up on a diet of mass and class,” says Donnelly. “I loved A Woman of Substance. I love, love, love Stephen King. Never apologize for what you read.”

Or what you write. Donnelly’s Rose trilogy (The Tea Rose, The Winter Rose, and the forthcoming The  Wild Rose) is a sprawling Victorian epic that ranges across several continents. Written with a research-hound’s eye for detail, they’re escapist page-turners, warmly blurbed by the late Frank McCourt and Barbara Taylor Bradford.

Donnelly started writing The Tea Rose at 24, between day jobs at J. Crew and Saks. She struggled for 10 years, “getting up at four am, working on weekends, not seeing people—always, always, always trying to get a book published.” Finally, she sent a whopping 1,100-page manuscript to literary agencies, including Writers House. Agent Simon Lipskar told her, “You can write, but you need a lot of work on structure and narrative drive.” He mentored her for two years until they felt the book was in saleable shape.

“Every publisher in New York slammed the door in our faces. It was devastating,” says Donnelly. Six months later, St. Martin’s editor Sally Kim bought it. The advance was very small, but “I didn’t care. I was so thrilled to be published, I was literally dancing on my dining room table.”

Her first young adult novel, the award-winning A Northern Light (Harcourt, 2003), takes place in the Adirondacks in 1906, revisiting the same drowning murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy through the eyes of a local farm girl who’s found work at the Glenmore Hotel—and to whom the doomed Grace entrusted a packet of letters, with urgent instructions to burn them. As with Revolution’s Andi, the written words of the dead girl reawakens the living one. What better metaphor could there be for literature?

Donnelly was raised in the Adirondacks, where her paternal relatives settled when they left Ireland, and Westchester County. Her father was a state trooper, frequently reassigned, so she spent her childhood shuttling between the poorest county in the state and the richest. This may account for the vivid awareness of class differences in her fiction. “It was great practice for being a writer,” she attests.

So were family reunions. “Stories were like breathing or food—it was something you had to have,” says Donnelly. “My Irish relatives would get together and tell stories.” Her German-born mother was also “a fantastic storyteller. She would tell me bedtime stories—not fairy tales, but stories from her life during World War II in a heavily bombed port town, stories of survival, of explosions and narrow escapes. I suppose I should have been terrified, but I wasn’t. I was galvanized. I guess that’s where the history piece comes in.”

The “history piece” got shaken when Donnelly read a New York Times article entitled “Geneticists’ Latest Probe: Heart of the Dauphin.” A tiny dried heart, clearly that of a child, was left inside a glass urn in the Basilica St. Denis. An international team of scientists proved that the legend tagging it as the heart of royal heir Louis-Charles was correct.

“I was blown away,” recalls Donnelly. Though she knew that Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were guillotined, she wasn’t aware that their children survived them, or that eight-year-old Louis-Charles was walled up in such wretched circumstances that he went mad and died of neglect at 10. She couldn’t reconcile “how the idealism of the French Revolution could devolve into such cruelty.”

Donnelly couldn’t start right away—she had Winter Rose deadlines and an infant daughter—but the story would not let her go. “As a new mother, I felt like a person who had no more shell. I would come apart any time I read news reports of a child abused by political circumstance or domestic abuse. The Joel Steinberg / Hedda Nussbaum case took my legs out from under me. I would just sit down and weep.” The image of a child’s heart in a glass jar haunted her. “You know how it is when a story is working on you—you go to bed with it, wake up with it, and you’re churning?”

Asked how Andi and Alex evolved, Donnelly shakes her head with wonder. “These girls kind of walk out of the mists of your imagination.” She was living in Brooklyn when she started working on Revolution and often worked in cafes, among denizens of two pressure-cooker prep schools. “They were very sophisticated, with their own way of talking and being—so chic, but they were still children underneath, struggling very hard with huge expectations.”

Her two narrators’ voices are distinctive and strong. (Andi: “I don’t like hope very much. In fact, I hate it. It’s the crystal meth of emotions. It hooks you fast and kills you hard.” Alex: “I am 17 years of age. I will not last much longer.”) Sometimes they seemed to fight for control of the book. “There were so many drafts. Maybe a hundred. I reworked chunks endlessly. It was relentless.” Donnelly reports bursting into tears, stamping around in her office, talking out loud. “I’m always intense about books, but this was the queen of crazy-making.” She laughs. “I don’t know how writers’ families put up with us.”

Very well, it would seem. Donnelly’s mother is still her first reader, along with her husband, a financial consultant and writer. Their daughter, now seven, is an ardent reader who makes “reading nests” on the floor with her blankets and pillows and disappears inside for hours. “Wouldn’t you love to do that?” asks Donnelly wistfully.

She’s unlikely to find the time soon. Delacorte is printing 250,000 copies of Revolution and sending her on a national book tour, with an early stop at her beloved Oblong Books & Music. Donnelly fell in love with the region while visiting Rhinebeck; she and her husband had weekend homes in Callicoon and Tivoli before relocating full-time last spring. “It’s as if we’ve moved into a Hudson River School landscape,” marvels Donnelly. “I pinch myself every day that I get to live in the Hudson Valley. Where else can you get tomatoes, cows, chickens, and Alban Berg?”

Jennifer Donnelly will appear 10/16 at 7:30pm at Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, and 11/6 at 5pm, Merritt Books in Millbrook.

  • Jennifer May
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