Saving Francesca (2005) is Melina Marchetta‘s second novel. Marchetta lives in Australia and, as her name might suggest, belongs to the community of Italian immigrants who now call Australia home. Marchetta’s first novel, Looking for Alibrandi was greeted with widespread critical acclaim and is now a standard part of Australian school curricula (meaning that Marchetta, a teacher, has to often teach her own novel to students). I feel that Saving Francesca is even better than Looking for Alibrandi, which might give some idea to how very good I think it is.
This novel, like Looking for Alibrandi, focuses on a family of Australian Italians. Sixteen-year-old Francesca Spinelli has a lot of limitations on her life. The worst might be her forced transfer to St. Sebastian’s, a former boy’s school that’s trying to turn co-ed. As Francesca explains “What a dream come true, right? Seven hundred and fifty boys and thirty girls? But the reality is that it’s either like living in a fish bowl or like you don’t exist.” Adding insult to injury, all of Francesca’s friends stayed at her old school, leaving Francesca with Siobhan the “slut of St. Stella’s”, Tara the “fanatic”, and Justine the “loser” as her only companions. Things only get worse when Francesca locks horns with the infuriating Will Trombal and Francesca’s mother, the usually vibrant and free-spirited Mia, refuses to get out of bed as she grapples with a depression that cripples not only Mia but Francesca and the rest of the family as well.
There is so much I want to say about this book. I love the story, I love the characters, I love the cover art for every edition I have seen. I love that Francesca’s voice is so unique and can appeal to just about everyone.
More important than any of that, the story is good. Marchetta tackles the issue of depression in a way that is new and effective. She never gets bogged down in presenting information that doesn’t relate to the story or the characters. At the same time, even though the depression plays a necessarily prevalent role in the novel, the story is about more than that.
While Francesca tries to make sense of her home life being turned inside out, she also starts to make sense of her own identity–something she never bothered to examine too closely at St. Stella’s when it became clear that her friends didn’t care about the “real” Francesca. Being thrown together with the other misfits from St. Stella’s, Francesca begins to find her own voice and her own place in the world. She also slowly begins to make sense of the boys at St. Sebastian’s. One of the best threads in the novel follows the evolving relations between the St. Stella’s transplants and their new, male, classmates.
Marchetta’s prose is vivid and to the point. The novel stays close to its main focus, Francesca and her family, to create a tight narrative that expertly traces the evolution of the characters in the novel. The story, narrative, and characters come together here to create one of those rare, arresting novels, that will grab readers attention from the first page through the last and still remain a satisfying read upon future perusals. Saving Francesca comes ten years after Looking for Alibrandi and, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, Marchetta spent the intervening years honing her craft to a rarely seen level of mastery.
Possible Pairings: Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Define “Normal” by Julie Anne Peters, Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, The Edge of Falling by Rebecca Serle, This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin