Book Review

‘French Revolution’ takes up in San Francisco

By Anne Whittaker
July 3, 2010

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Imagine the players of revolutionary France in late 20th century San Francisco. But in this telling, Marie Antoinette becomes a 450-pound, ex-pastry chef, now CopySmart employee, named Esmerelda Van Twinkle. Louis XVI is Jasper Winslow, a restaurant coupon salesman who roams Market Street and keeps Esmerelda supplied with the discounts that enable her gluttony. During a seduction facilitated by a Zoogman Bakery’s dessert masterpiece: “triple chocolate truffle swirl cheesecake, with Heath bar crumbs and caramel roses on top,’’ Jasper impregnates Esmerelda. Nine months later on July 14, Bastille Day, their twin children, Marat and Robespierre, are born. Thus begins Matt Stewart’s whimsically allegorical novel, “The French Revolution.’’

The book, Stewart’s debut, was first published on Twitter as a series of 3,700 tweets. While amusing and quite clever, this somewhat liberal reimagining of a landmark event in European history is plagued by flaws, which prevent it from rising above the level of light entertainment.

After Jasper’s mysterious disappearance, Esmerelda must raise the twins alone with only limited assistance from her alcoholic, depressive mother, Fanny Van Twinkle. As the children grow up, Robespierre’s status as the family’s golden child is highlighted by Marat’s failing grades, social skills, and poor skin. Eventually, the undernurtured, underprivileged children stage a revolt against their mother’s authoritarian power, forcing her to go on a diet and then taking off to make their way in the world.

Surprisingly, the stars begin to align for the Van Twinkles as Marat matriculates from the army and builds a promising friendship with aspiring politician Joel Lumpkin; Robespierre prepares herself for life as a lobbyist with an Ivy League education to her name; and Esmerelda, now svelte and sexy, re-enters the world of culinary arts. All this good luck paves the way for Jasper’s sudden reappearance.

The story is cleverly historically informed, transliterating the most influential characters and historical events from the French Revolution into recognizable figures and themes: Napoleon Bonaparte is Murphy Ahn, a hard-knock orphaned street kid-turned-politician; the Tennis Court Oath takes the form of a Van Twinkle family housing agreement; the Reign of Terror occurs simultaneously in the twins’ decision to enforce the gradual slimming down of Mother France and in Robespierre and Marat’s coming of age.

While many of the novel’s historical correlations are clear and evident, portions are also loose and deliberately interpretable. Rather than make “The French Revolution’’ a modern adaptation of a series of historical events as other writers choose to do with allegories, such as George Orwell in “Animal Farm,’’ Stewart instead interprets the European upheaval of an archaic social order and the embrace of individual rights into a very different story.

All of which points to a central problem in the book. That is, the way this juxtaposition is handled prevents either story, the historical revolution or the family drama, from providing any insight into the other. Also, the rags-to-riches tale of each of the Van Twinkles — for example, Robespierre’s elevation from an awkward teenager operating a smoothie stand to a locally acclaimed actress to an intern at the White House to a popular and seductive Californian politician, or Jasper’s evolution from a coupon distributor to a chart-topping folk musician — are contrived and unbelievable.

Additionally, none of the characters that drive “The French Revolution’’ are remotely likable. They are crass, contradictory, self-serving, vulgar, and unpleasant. They lack the depth and development to excuse any of their behavior or any of their primitive meanness. However, none of the creatures living on the “Animal Farm’’ were particularly endearing either, and that allegory requires no editorializing.

Anne Whittaker, a writer and editor living in Boston, can be reached at


By Matt Stewart

Soft Skull, 320 pp., $15.95