Melina Marchetta is Australian. According to the backflap copy for this book, she lives in Sydney where she teaches English at an all-boys high school. After the 1992 debut of her first novel Marchetta found herself in an interesting position. Looking for Alibrandi won every major literary award for young adult literature in Australia so that Marchetta subsequently had to teach her own book to her students. All told, not a bad problem to have.
Ten years later Saving Francesca came out and also garnered a lot of praise and awards (as well as regularly being in my Top Five). In short, Melina Marchetta is a pretty big deal. I enjoy her books because they feel like her characters are living lives that I might have had were things different.
Apparently, and I’m embarassed to say I only found this out yesterday, Looking for Alibrandi was also adapted into a movie in Australia in 2000 with Marchetta writing the screenplay. I wish I could find the DVD.
Set in Australia, this novel deals with a sub-community that I didn’t even know Australia had: Italians. Narrator, Josie, comes from an Italian family that immigrated to Australia. At a Catholic school she doesn’t like, surrounded by people who don’t understand the Italian part of her culture, seventeen-year-old Josie feels adrift.
Josie has a lot of women in her life. She lives with her mother and (much to her frustration) spends afternoons with her grandmother until her mom can pick her up. Josie’s father isn’t a part of the picture. He never has been. And what I like about this novel, is that it isn’t a big deal–it’s just life. No complex explanation, no pang of longing for the father she never met, he’s just no around.
Or is he?
Things get more complicated for Josie and her mom when Josie’s long-absent father suddenly reappears. After living without him for so long, Josie isn’t sure he’s worth her time now. In this thread of the novel, Marchetta does an excellent job exploring how Josie can acquaint herself with one of the people she should know better than anyone else.
Amidst this family confusion, Josie finds herself caught between two very different young men. Josie has always been attracted to John Barton, and with good reason. His life seems to have been handed to him on a silver platter. From a rich family, bound for law school, and good-looking, John seems to have everything going for him. Still, as John finally notices Josie and open up to her, Josie is shocked to find that John isn’t nearly as content as she would have guessed.
Jacob Coote, on the other hand, is completely comfortable in his own skin. From a working class family, Jacob is confident about his own bright future (and his ability to get there by sheer force of will). Drawn to Jacob’s radical ideas and striking personality, it’s hard to tell if Josie and Jacob are perfect for each other or too similar to ever really last.
Looking for Alibrandi is a novel with many facets and many plots. All of the characters are dimensional, adding their own stories to the larger narrative of the novel. In addition to an excellent dissection of family relations, Looking for Alibrandi is one of the best novels about the immigrant experience I have ever read. Yes, Josie is probably third generation if not later, and true these characters are immigrants to Australia and not the USA. Still, the novel offers admirable commentary to anyone interested in immigration (and assimilation) in America and elsewhere.
Possible Pairings: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti, Looking for Alaska by John Green, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban
Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Looking for Alibrandi