2.28.2011

The Piper's Son written by Melina Marchetta, 328 pp, RL: TEEN


The Piper's Son was released in March of 2010 in Australia, right side. 
I can't decide which cover I like better.


The Piper's Son by Melina Marchetta revisits the characters from her 2003 novel, Saving Francesca, some five years after that book ended. Marchetta has a fascination with and an astounding ability to portray (and with great tenderness) the pain of families falling apart and the difficult path to coming back together. Not only are the families in The Piper's Son in pieces, but the family members are grieving the loss of their beloved Joe and the resulting disintegration of a family that they loved deeply and depended on. In The Piper's Son Marchetta focuses on two main characters, Thomas Mackee from Saving Francesca, and his aunt Georgie, who is also the twin sister of his father, Dominic. I'm not sure that The Piper's Son will (or should) have the same impact on a young adult reading this book, just starting his or her life, as it might for someone who has been through an additional twenty years with her or his family, nor should it. But. with generation spanning main characters, this book also spans genres and should appeal to young adult and adult readers equally. The Piper's Son had me in tears almost every other chapter, in part because of forty-two year old Georgie. With Saving Francesca, we watch as Francesca, who's world has already been ruptured by her mother's decision to separate her from her friends and send her to St Sebastian's, a previously all-boys school for the last two years of high school, has her world broken when her dynamo mother is paralyzed by depression and her family slowly falls apart. Finding a group of intuitive, loving and supportive friends forms the lifejacket that keeps her afloat through this time as her family slowly begins to mend. What makes Marchetta's books amazing, besides her brilliance at writing about family, is her skill at crafting characters who are compelling, real and very hard to forget. Their personalities leap off the page, even when they aren't the main character of the story, like Thomas Mackee, a St Sebasitan's student who enters into Francesca's orbit in Saving Francesca and joins his Aunt Georgie as the other main character of The Piper's Son in this new book. Her characters and stories are so amazing that after reading Marchetta's books I feel like I have seen a movie that was so great I have to pull someone aside and tell him the whole plot, scene by scene. For a really succinct, superb review, read Kristin Halbrook's piece at YA Highway. For a great interview with Melina Marchetta (besides mine...) check out this excellent YA blog run by an Australian teacher Persnickety Snark.


While the depression that Francesca's mother suffered in Saving Francesca was an important part of the story, that book remained squarely in the realm of Young Adult literature with seventeen-year-old Francesca as the main character. With The Piper's Son, not only are the returning characters from Saving Francesca adults, almost twenty-two, but there is Georgie who is pregnant for the first time. Marchetta is gifted at creating big families with complex personalities and histories and the Mackee-Finch family is a perfect example of this. A blended family, Bill Mackee married Grace Finch, widow of his best friend Tom Finch, a few years after Tom Finch died behind enemy lines in the Vietnam war. Tom Finch's children, twins Georgie and Dominic, become Finch-Mackees and, when they are eleven, their half brother Joe is born. Joe is the glue that binds the family and they all dote on him. When he goes abroad to teach in London and is killed in the subway bombings of July 7, 2005 the rest of the family falls to pieces. This may seem like a dire beginning, but, as Kristin Halbrook says so perfectly in her review of The Piper's Son, Marchetta,

takes those obnoxious familial tics we suffer through for our loved ones and makes them complex and comfortable and achingly beautiful so that as we read we want these people - these people who know and love us well enough not to hide themselves with us - nearby so we can read bits and sentences and paragraphs aloud to them. Because of the connections: the connection between the reader and the story, between the reader and their own family, between each character in the novel they can identify in their life.

If pain and grief are the roots of this book, then the connections that Marcehetta's writing engenders, on the page and off, are the fruits of her writing.

The Piper's Son begins when the Finch-Mackees are at their lowest. Thomas has dropped out of University and is numbing his pain any way he can. His mother and sister have moved out of the state and his father, Dominic, has drunk himself into seclusion and his whereabouts are unknown. Sam, the father of Georgie's baby is also the man who devastated her some seven years ago when, during a short break in their relationship, he fathered a child with another woman. But, Sam is also the person who, without any discussion of it, steps back into Georgie's life when Joe is killed. The the only Finch-Mackee who is emotionally strong enough to go to London to bring home Joe's remains, Georgie is forced to return empty handed and shellshocked. Sam travels with her and helps Georgie through the process of dealing with Joe's death and the British authorities. Despite this, she cannot forgive him, leaving them in a sad and empty silence. Georgie is clinging so hard to life that she is no longer living it, just passing the days, trying not to see Sam with his son, Callum, unable to even admit that she is pregnant to her family or friends until well into her second trimester. Thomas, in his grief at the loss of his uncle, the abandonment of his father and the distance between him and his mother and younger sister, alienates himself even further when he turns his back on his friends and his deepening relationship with Tara Finke, leaving them feeling raw and wounded, but unwilling to abandon him. They know that Thomas will come back to them.

It is so hard not to tell the whole story to you here. And, while the plot is fantastic and unfolds at a perfect pace, it is all the little details, the things that Marchetta's characters carry with them that make this book so completely compelling. There is the fact that Tom has memorized TS Eliot's 132 line poem, "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock," a task my English teacher senior year of high school insisted my classmates and I complete. There are emails throughout the book, letters Georgie sends to her dead brother's account that has not been closed, letters that Thomas sends to the girl who's heart he broke and letters that he sends to his sister Anabel. Thomas' email address is anabelsbrother@hotmail.com and his sister's address is tomsister@hotmail.com. Details like the intense love that her characters can have for each other make them real for the reader. The conversation between Dominic and Georgie when they finally talk about their brother has me in tears every time I read it. In fact, I am choking back tears time and again as I reread the passages I marked while writing this review. Every detail of the story, every character and motivation has a backstory and when they come to light they can hit you in the gut with their truth, their beauty and their love. But, the pain that we unthinkingly inflict on each other is also part of this story that underlies the motivations of some of the characters as well. Grace Finch-Mackee is a brisk and efficient woman but not always the mother Georgie wanted or needed. When she and Bill arrive at Georgie's house to pull her out of a depression, they burst through the door, dogs, bags and all. Greeting them, Georgie thinks, "Grace does that practical thing where she hugs her quickly and pats her on the back without lingering. Just one second more, Grace, Georgie wants to say, Just one more second." 

These details can also knock you over with their profound sadness, like when Dominic is telling the story of the day he took his last drink at an AA meeting and Thomas, whom he hasn't spoken to for almost a year, is in the audience at his invitation. Dominic tells the story of being passed out on a park bench all night and being helped by a woman jogger who goes through his wallet trying to find a phone number to call. When she comes across a picture of his family and asks who they are, he can name everyone except his son. "I couldn't remember my boy's name. And that was the first day . . ." But this is more than Tom can bear and he "doesn't remember much after that except that there's a bit of a collection over basic costs and then they serve tea, coffee, and biscuits. His father speaks to almost everyone in the hall. They gravitate to him the way people always have. And they all want to meet Tom. To tell him that even though they've only known Dominic a couple of weeks, they all love him. Does his father do it on purpose? Cause people to have a dependency on him so that when he's gone, it's hard to cope?" Dominic is the piper and Tom is his son and, as painful as it can be when things are bad, Tom finds his own way back to his family, without the piper's song to lead him. And, while they may not follow him, people do gravitate to Tom as well. By the end of the novel when he has abandoned his anger and his begun to heal his pain he is able to both realize and embrace this, as well as the people themselves.


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