A couple of months ago I read a pretty famous YA novel–Melina Marchetta’s Saving Francesca. It’s about friendship and family and working out where you fit into the world, and I really enjoyed it, because it felt so real. It also has lots of interesting themes and amazing characters.(also, just fyi, it may take a little while to get back to your comments because this is a scheduled post.)
Francesca is stuck at St. Sebastian’s, a boys’ school that pretends it’s coed by giving the girls their own bathroom. Her only female companions are an ultra-feminist, a rumored slut, and an impossibly dorky accordion player. The boys are no better, from Thomas, who specializes in musical burping, to Will, the perpetually frowning, smug moron that Francesca can’t seem to stop thinking about.
Then there’s Francesca’s mother, who always thinks she knows what’s best for Francesca—until she is suddenly stricken with acute depression, leaving Francesca lost, alone, and without an inkling of who she really is. Simultaneously humorous, poignant, and impossible to put down, this is the story of a girl who must summon the strength to save her family, her social life and—hardest of all—herself.
So when I read contemporary, I mostly read American contemporary books, most of which have characters in high school. Many of these books emphasise cliques, and crazy parties and a lot of other things which have very little in common with my own high school experience. While obviously a book can’t be exactly the same as what I’ve experienced, I loved that this book showed how fluid friend groups can be, and the way you can feel alienated even within your own friendships, and how teachers can be totally compassionate even when you don’t want to learn, and how younger siblings effect you, and how your attitude to school can change, and how boys can be jerks sometimes, but so can girls, and how labels can change, and popularity matters, but not as much as you want it to. Marchetta’s voice was just SO PERFECT and she got it really really right in an essential way, never resorting to stereotypes, but using their existence very effectively.
“Tara’s already been called a lesbian because that’s how the Sebastian boys deal with an girl who has an opinion.”
“I think I’m a bit in love with these girls. They make me feel giddy. Like I haven’t a care in the world. Like I’m fearless. Like I used to be.
This book has some really important themes. For one thing, it talks about identity, which is a key part of the book. Francesca has relied on other people to show her how she belongs for a long time, which has made her totally unsure of who she is without them. Her new school, and the alienation she feels in it, as well as the judgemental attitude she has cultivated towards the other girls, leaves her totally unsure of herself. The fact that her family seems to be disintegrating due to her mother’s depression doesn’t help at all. Francesca has to figure out who she is on her own, who she wants her friends to be, and how she wants to make a difference. this is emphasised throughout the text by her various proclamations ‘when I grow up I want to be a teacher’ to ‘when I grow up I want to be my mother’ I loved that development, and these themes of identity and friendship keep the narrative cohesive. The stuff about her friendships evolving was something that I could really relate to.
“I miss the Stella girls telling me what I am. That I’m sweet and placid and accommodating and loyal and good to have around.[…]But I’m a noun. A nothing. A nobody. A no-one.”
” Oh yeah, I’m so smart. That’s why I’m God knows where and my friends, who I thought were my friends, aren’t and the ones who are my friends, who I have never considered my friends, aren’t talking to me, and the guy I’m in love with isn’t happy enough to put a girl between us but now has to put a body of water between us.”
“Why do I feel as if something’s missing in my life without them and they don’t feel the same way about me?”
Francesca is a fabulous character, and I loved how she developed through the story. But Marchetta’s true skill lies in how she creates this vivid landscape of side characters. There’s Justine, who plays accordion and is nerdy and passionate and cool; Tara, who is an activist of all kinds, and totally fervent and really enthusiastic; Will, who is a prefect with issues but also sweet; Mia, Francesca’s mother who’s lost in depression; Luca, Francesca’s amazing, sweet, little brother; Francesca’s vibrant Italian extended family; Thomas, who is kind of jerk but also kind when it’s important, and totally astute; Siobhan, who is labelled as a slut, but is so much more than that; Robert, Francesca’s dad, who is kind and lost and needed more than he knows. I loved all these characters so much, and their relationships with Francesca really help show who she is, as well as being fabulous in their own right.
“You go an shake your foundations, Will. I think it’s about time I saved myself.”
“At times, I hate myself so much that it makes my head spin.”
“We dance in a way that’s only possible when there’s not boys around.”
The one thing that sort of bothered me about this story is that the pacing felt…just off? I read Jellicoe Road a long time ago and really liked it, but have basically forgotten everything. But I read Finnikin of the Rock earlier this year and mostly didn’t like it, and the only similarity it bears to this book is the odd pacing. Some important things were skipped, others were not lingered on, and the conclusion just felt really rushed and out of touch with the rest of the story. But apart from that, I loved this story, because it felt so delightfully real.
What is your favourite book that’s set in a school? Do you like realistic friendships? tell me in the comments.