Sixteen year old Francesca Spinelli’s life is falling apart. Forced by her extroverted, feminist, intelligent mother to attend new school St Sebastian’s at the start of year 11 when all her friends went to another, Francesca finds school days difficult. St Sebastian’s was previously a boys-only school and they’ve only recently started accepting female students. There’s only thirty girls there, a few from Francesca’s old school and most of the others come from yet another school. Francesca doesn’t exactly have friends, more acquaintances that she hangs around with at times, because there’s no one else. But school isn’t at all her biggest problem.
One morning, her mother doesn’t get out of bed. Her mother is a lecturer at UTS, a passionate, larger than life persona. For her to not get out of bed is unthinkable, especially as it happens the next day and then the next and the next and then the one after that. Without her presence, the family begins to buckle under the strain of being cheerful, of pretending that nothing is wrong and that she’ll snap out of it soon. Francesca and her 10 year old brother Luca are thrown into a life that they do not know. They can’t relate to their father, who seems to be promoting all of his energy into their mother, and they can’t reach their mother who does not even have the energy to eat or hold a conversation.
In a time of chaos at home, at school things are slowly clicking together. Francesca is making an eclectic group of friends – the political activist and outspoken Tara, piano accordion player Justine, flirtatious Siobhan and some St Sebastian boys – class clown Jimmy and music-obsessed Thomas. And then there’s Will Trombal – a year above her and prefect of her house. Francesca is elected ‘the one’ to talk to Will about some of the things the girls want like more rights at the school which has catered to only boys for so long it’s not quite sure how to cater to the girls it now accepts. They’re an unlikely bunch and it’s because of Francesca that they all come together and form a mishmash group of friends.
But although things at school are getting better and she’s falling in love and experiencing the joy of slowly finding out who she really is and spending time with people that know and appreciate that, the home life is still sliding. Her mother still can’t get out of bed, her father fluctuates between expecting her to be the adult and call her mother’s place of work and negotiate her leave and telling her she’s a child and doesn’t need to know what is going on. For Francesca, it’s all spinning out of control, like her mother is the glue that holds the family together and without her at her best, they’re all going to fall apart.
Sometimes I wish I had the skill to articulate how I feel about something like this book. I can say it was awesome, I can say I loved it, I can say I connected with it and the characters within it. I can say that it made me laugh and it also made me cry. But none of those things would really be enough. This book is one of the reasons I am a reader. There are some books out there that are meant to be experienced and for me, this is one of them. Melina Marchetta is worshipped in Australian YA circles and I more than understand why. Before this book, my experience with her work was reading Looking For Alibrandi for school, many years ago. I enjoyed it a lot but I moved on from reading YA and I didn’t often pursue anything I’d read for school, out of school. But since I’ve started blogging and reading YA again, I’ve been vowing to read more Marchetta. And I’ve finally made good on that.
Francesca is a character full of depth and feeling. She’s a natural extrovert, more like her mother than she realises, suppressing herself because she believes it’s the only way in which people will like her. She’s already miserable, forced into a school she didn’t want to attend, away from the people she thought were her friends. When her mother has a breakdown and becomes depressed, life comes crashing down around her. Her mother is such a central point in her life, in her family and without her as the rock, the anchor that holds things together, the cracks are coming faster than anyone can plaster them up. Francesca’s father is of the mindframe that left alone, Francesca’s mother will heal. Other family members think she should be seeing a doctor and given antidepressants. Francesca doesn’t know what the answer is, she just knows that she wants things to be back to normal.
The relationships and interactions in this novel are simply incredible. Francesca’s mother Mia’s depression feels so real without being over dramatic and the family’s struggle with how to cope with it is emotional and the blaming and arguing and guilt that comes with it are perfectly portrayed. Francesca’s friendships, formed in unorthodox ways through random moments and the different personalities of the people that come together to form this little group are refreshing. Francesca makes friends by finding her way back to being herself, shedding the persona she had assumed at her previous school at the advice of her so-called ‘friends’ in order for people to like her better. Her mother has always thought she’s known what’s best for Francesca and it seems like Francesca has often rebelled against that merely on principle. But when her mother isn’t there to tell her anymore and she has to figure it out herself… And then there’s her relationship with Will (or rather her non-relationship with Will) – snatches and tiny moments that manage to tell a story worth thousands of words.
I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read this. And once again, I’ve found another book read from my local library that I need to buy and give a home on my shelves. I can see myself returning to Francesca’s story time and time again in the future.
Book #32 of 2012
Saving Francesca qualifies for the Australian Women Writers Challenge- my 7th title for the challenge so far this year. It’s set in Sydney’s inner-west, around such immigrant suburbs as Leichhardt. The characters talk often of heading to Bar Italia for a gelato. Leichhardt is known as ‘Little Italy’ and Francesca is obviously of Italian descent. Her relatives are Sicilian immigrants and the whole story line about the ‘S Biscuits’ had me in tears laughing. My mother-in-law (also born in Sicily, came to Australia in the late 50’s) make’s S biscuits and is fiercely, fiercely proud of them. In fact my sister-in-law once mentioned that she liked them and when my MIL flew up to the Sunshine Coast from Melbourne to visit them, she packed the entire array of ingredients it takes to make them, specifically to both make them for her son and DIL and also to teach DIL to make them. DIL wasn’t interested in learning, which utterly flabbergasted my MIL. She couldn’t understand how anyone wouldn’t want to learn how to make her amazing biscuits. I am the black sheep DIL because I actually do not like the S biscuits. MIL still refuses to believe this and sends about 300 home with us every time we see her.