Andi Alpers (her full name is Diandra Xenia Alpers) is a student at St. Anselm’s, a prestigious private school in Brooklyn where tuition is thirty thousand dollars annually. She is in her senior year. The students see themselves as special, exceptional: “We’re supernovas, every single one of us.”
They talk like this: “…you can’t even approach Flock of Seagulls without getting caught up in the metafictive paradigm,” somebody says.
And “Plastic Bertrand can, I think, best be understood as a postironic nihilist referentialist.”
And “But, like, New Wave derived meaning from its own meaninglessness. Dude, the tautology was so intended.”
Andi plays guitar, wears a silver key around her neck on a red ribbon which is not to be touched – we learn this in the early pages. She also wears several skull rings. Her best friend in Vijay Gupta, “President of the Honor Society, the debate team, the Chess Club and the Model United Nations. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, a literacy center, and the ASPCA. Davidson Fellow, Presidential Scholar candidate, winner of a Princeton University poetry prize…” Andi thinks Vijay sees he as “some kind of rehabilitation project, like the loser dogs he cars for at the shelter.”
When winter break begins Andi has not turned in any college applications nor has she submitted the outline for her senior thesis. She has chosen a subject for her thesis: “an eighteenth-century French composer, Amadé Malherbeau…one of the first Classical period composers to write predominantly for guitar.” The headmistress has sent letters home,one to each of her parents. Andi’s father doesn’t open his mail and her mother is not well.
Her response to the headmistress is: “…I just don’t see it happening, Ms. Beezemyer, you know? The senior thesis. Not really. Can’t I just get my diploma in June and go?”
Andi knows completing the thesis to a satisfactory level is a condition of earning her diploma but she doesn’t care. The headmistress expresses sympathy because she understands Andi’s situation but she names Andi’s brother Truman and this is intolerable for Andi.
“The rage is there again, rising higher, and I can’t stop it.”
“It’s not about me. It’s about you,” I tell her. “It’s about the numbers. If two seniors got into Princeton last year, you want four in this year. That’s how it is here and we all know it. Nobody’s paying tuition that equals the annual median salary in the state of New Hampshire so their kid can go to a crap school. Parents want Harvard, MIT, Brown. Julliard looks good for you. For you, Ms. Beezemeyer, not me. That’s what this is about.”
Beezie looks like she’s been slapped. My God, Andi,” she says. “You couldn’t have been more hurtful if you tried.”
“I did try.”
So now you know Andi. Then you meet her mother who spends almost all her waking moments trying to draw Truman, Andi’s brother, but not being able to get the eyes right. And then we learn the story of the key Andi wears and its relationship to Truman and Andi and their father.And we learn that Andi is taking a medication called Qwellify which is supposed to control her anger,her sadness, her suicidal urges but which is losing its effectiveness.
Then her father decides to take Andi with him to Paris over winter break and she is to complete the thesis outline there. Andi goes only because she thinks it will be worse for her to stay.
They stay with her father’s friend Guillaume Lenôtre and his wife Lili who live in an old furniture factory full to bursting with artifacts of the French Revolution. The factory was located in the workers quarters which were the “heart of the Revolution”. Lili knew Andi’s mother : they were roommates at the Sorbonne.
The artifacts in Guillaume’s old factory (residence is on the upper floor) include things like “marble busts, a stuffed monkey, a wax mannequin, a collection of muskets standing upright in an old barrel, and a huge clock face. I see a wreath made of hair, painted tea chests, shop signs, glass eyeballs, and a cardboard box tied with a ribbon. Last Letters of the Condemned, 1793 is written on it in old-fashioned script. I open the box and carefully lift a letter out. The paper is brittle. The handwriting is hard to read. So is the old French.
Farewell, my wife and children, forever and ever. Love my children, I beg you, tell them often what i was, love them for both of us. …I end my days today…
I pick up another: My last linen is dirty, my stockings are rotting, my breeches are threadbare. I’m dying of hunger and boredom…I shall not write to you anymore, the world is execrable. Farewell!
And a third: I do not know, my little friend, if it will be given to me to see you or to write to you again. Remember your mother…Farewell, beloved child…The time will come when you will be able to judge the effort that I am making at the moment not to be moved to tears at the memory of you. I press you to my heart. Farewell…
God, what a bummer. I can’t read any more so I put the letters back, close the box, and keep poking around.There’s a toy guillotine on the floor, complete with executioner, victim, and victim’s papier-mâché head staring up in shock from a tiny willow basket. ” The list goes on.
Andi trips over a long wooden case, “the kind that guitars come in.” In the case she finds “the most beautiful guitar I’ve ever seen. It’s made of rosewood and spruce with an ebony fingerboard. The rosette and the purfling at the edges are inlaid with mother-of-pearl, ivory and silver. Guillaume explains that it is a Vinaccia, made in Italy in the late seventeen hundreds, very rare and very expensive. He bought it thirty years ago from a “man who found it in the catacombs. A worker. There was a cave-in in one of the tunnels.” The guitar was apparently lying under some skeletons, “Headless ones. Which suggests the Terror. You would think the whole thing would be ruined – lying underground for over two centuries – but no. Perhaps the cool air preserved it.” He encourages Andi to play it.
Have you heard of the catacombs under the city of Paris? Join Andi in an amazing journey to the time of the French Revolution while she gets first hand information on her senior thesis subject and meets Alexandrine Paradis, a seventeen year old who tried to save Marie Antoinette’s son. The two time periods are linked almost seamlessly and the story is extremely compelling.