Matt Stewart’s The French Revolution imprints two California-born children with 200-year-old monikers and a glimmer of the same spirit that pushes them far from their inauspicious births. What these revolutionaries are fighting for becomes clear far too late in the book, but Stewart’s debut shows promise even in its derivative moments.
Esmerelda Van Twinkle and Jasper Winslow meet not-so-cute outside the San Francisco copy shop where she works. She, a morbidly obese cashier who terrorizes her superiors by occasionally passing out, can’t understand what has attracted the eccentric door-to-door coupon salesman who woos her with free-delivery deals. After they consummate their love in a hot tub, Esmerelda gives birth to fraternal twins she names Marat and Robespierre for their Bastille Day arrival, and the clueless but well-intentioned mother steers her kids from in-laws’ apartment to Swedish swinger den until finally ending up with her own controlling mom, all while putting off Jasper’s constant marriage proposals. Marat and Robespierre grow up fractious but fiercely independent; as her twin brother pushes his way into the criminal underworld, Robespierre sets her sights on City Hall.
With guidance from John Kennedy Toole and Tom Robbins, Stewart adds plenty of memorable curlicues to his characters; the problem is, he doesn’t know when to stop adding and refine or pare back his creations. After the fourth or fifth secret talent is revealed, his characters resemble bundles of anecdotes rather than people. This everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach also applies to the plot’s late political bent, a sloppy montage that reveals yet more about the twins while stretching its titular metaphor to the breaking point.
Still, insofar as The French Revolution is a small story writ baggily large, its questionably conceived twins, underestimated by the world, make a dynamic pair whose absence becomes disappointing as Stewart’s attention shifts to other characters. (An initially puzzling subplot involving a D.C. foster child the same age as the Van Twinkle twins crosses over, but feels inessential to the action.) As oppressed by their mother’s overbearing resistance to change as they are hemmed in by storage boxes in their grandmother’s house, Marat and Robespierre use Esmerelda as their testing ground for imposing their will on others, with all the groan-inducing puns of the immovable object intact. The French Revolution’s abrupt ending suggest that their greatest acts of sabotage are before them, even though most of them don’t land on the page.