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Sunday, October 25, 2009

'Looking for Alibrandi' & 'Saving Francesca' by Melina MARCHETTA

Ross: Rachel claims this is her favorite movie.

Chandler: Dangerous Liaisons.

Ross: Correct. Her actual favorite movie is?

Joey: Weekend at Bernie's

Ross: Correct.

If I’m feeling the need to impress people I’ll say that my favorite book is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘The Great Gatsby’. I do love these books, but if I were stuck on a desert island they wouldn’t be my first preference of reading material. That honor goes to two books that, upon reading them for the first time, I felt an instant kinship with the characters and author – Melina Marchetta.

‘Looking for Alibrandi’

From the BLURB:

For as long as Josephine Alibrandi can remember, it's just been her, her mum, and her grandmother. Now it's her final year at a wealthy Catholic private girls' school where the nuns couldn't be any stricter. But that doesn't seem to stop all kinds of men from coming into Josie's life, including her father!

Caught between the old-world values of her Italian nonna Katia, the no-nonsense wisdom of her mother Cristina, and the boys who continue to mystify her, Josie is on the ride of her life.

This will be the year she falls in love, the year she discovers the secrets of her family's past - and the year she sets herself free.

I first read this book when I was about 13. I remember sitting down and reading the entire book through in one day, and at the end I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I completely related to the title character, Josephine ‘Josie’ Alibrandi. At the time I was also attending a private all girl’s school and could relate to the great social divide Josie and her friend’s struggled with. As with most private schools, there were those students who came from money – who were born into, and well acquainted with privilege. Then there were those like Josie and her friends (and me) who came from a modest working-class background, whose parent’s scrimped and saved to give their children the opportunities they didn’t grow up with.

I could also relate to Josie’s eclectic family life. Josie comes from an Italian tribe of eccentric, over-bearing loud-mouthed ‘wogs’ (an Australian slang referring to ethnicity). Josie makes fun of her Nonna (grandmother) who is wired into the Sicilian grapevine, and her mother who bends to Nonna’s every wish like a dutiful Italian daughter (though she’s 40). My family is Austrian, and I completely related to Josie’s musings about embarrassingly rambunctious family dinners, nosy relatives and her grandmother’s determination to remain in the past.

Josie’s teenage angst is entirely relatable. She doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere – not at school where she and her friends are the outcasts, forever relegated to the sandpit-sidelines, or at home where her families eccentricities cause endless humiliation. Josie’s world is thrown into further turmoil when her absentee father, Michael Andretti, suddenly reappears in her life. And to top it all off it’s Josie’s senior year and exams are looming.

There’s also a beautiful romance woven throughout the story, and in a perfect encapsulation of the rest of her life, Josie is drawn to two very different boys. John Barton is the head boy at an all boy’s school across town. He plays football with her cousin and they catch the train together – John is a barrister’s son and set to follow in his father’s footsteps, even if it’s not necessarily what he really wants to do. Josie lusts after John, he is the embodiment of everything she wishes her life could be.

Then there’s Jacob Coote – the dangerous head boy of the local public school, with a less than stellar reputation (the boy, and the school). Try as she might to dissuade him, Jacob is in hot pursuit of Josie and she can’t help but respond to his crass flirtations.

While writing ‘Looking For Alibrandi’ Melina Marchetta was working as an English teacher at a private school. You can tell that she has a lot of respect for teenagers and their problems; she never belittles their dramas, from school pressure to boy problems, and she gives them the perfect balance of cavalier attitude and deep-seated wisdom.

‘Looking For Alibrandi’ is the quintessential YA novel. Marchetta covers a lot of drama - everything from identity crisis, to single-parent families and even teen suicide. In Australia this novel held the prestige of being the most shoplifted book from bookstores and unreturned book to libraries. It was turned into a movie in 2000, which was one of the best adaptations I have ever seen. And to this day it remains the most influential book I have ever read. I re-read it a lot in my last 2 years of high school – when I needed Josie’s insightful musings on school and exams to get me through my own studying woes. I go back and re-read my favorite bits frequently, and still cry at all the same passages and laugh at the jokes I’ve re-read a hundred times now. To this day I still think there’s a little bit of Josie Alibrandi in me.

‘Saving Francesca’

From the BLURB:

Francesca battles her mother Mia constantly over what's best for her. All Francesca wants is her old friends and her old school, but instead Mia sends her to St Sebastian's, an all-boys' school that has just opened its doors to girls. Now Francesca's surrounded by hundreds of boys, with only a few other girls for company. All of them weirdos - or worse.

Then one day, Mia is too depressed to get out of bed. One day turns into months and as her family begins to fall apart, Francesca realizes that without her mother's high spirits she hardly knows who she is. But she doesn't yet realize that she's more like Mia than she thinks. With a little unlikely help from St Sebastian's, she just might be able to save her family, her friends, and especially herself.

Marchetta took 10 years to write her second novel, but ‘Saving Francesca’ was well worth the wait.

Set in a private school again, Marchetta wryly observes female/male interactions through a group of rag-tag girls who are the first females to enter into year 11 at the previously all-boys school, St. Sebastians. In ‘Saving Francesca’ Marchetta also comments on the absurdity of the friendships that are formed at school, where a bunch of people who would otherwise never willingly interact with one another are forced into co-habitation. Where ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ dealt with a plethora of serious teenage problems, ‘Saving Francesca’ has a definite focus on depression and the effects it has on the family unit. Francesca Spinelli narrates the story, as she deals with adjusting to St. Sebastians and how her normally boisterous family is rocked by her mother’s sudden decline into depression.

‘Saving Francesca’ also has a romance, and this one is incredibly sweet. Francesca unwittingly falls for William Trombal, the head of her schoolhouse. At first the two are at loggerheads over everything from sport equality among the male/female students, to who wrote Anna Karenina.

Francesca is an incredible female lead. We meet her at the lowest point in her life – lonely at her new school, dealing with the fall-out from her mother’s decline and worrying about her own coping mechanisms. She is a witty, smart, charming character and I never tire re-reading this book just so I can hang out with Francesca.

I also love re-reading this book because it never fails to give me bellyaching laughs. Marchetta writes smart, witty teenage characters who you wish were real people and real friends you could call and invite round for a catch-up.

Melina Marchetta's unique musings on teenage life heavily influenced and reflected my own adolescence. The stories are not diminished by time - rather they are timeless. Even now, more than a decade after my first reading, I still find these books to be comforting, insightful and the most relevant reflection of Australian youth.

I am thrilled to find out that Melina Marchetta is writing a sequel to ‘Saving Francesca’, called ‘The Piper’s Son’. This book will be told from the perspective of one of the male characters from ‘Saving Francesca’ – Thomas Mackee, and is set 5 years after ‘SF’. The book is due for release in March 2010.


  1. Wow, these reviews are beautiful! I've only read Looking for Alibrandi, and I've just borrowed Saving Francesca. But the deep ties you clearly have to these books makes me want to grab it out right now and read it. Thanks! (Going to get SF...)

  2. Hmm, I may have to check one of these out. I need a new read.


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