Saving Francesca written by Melina Marchetta

As I sometimes beg of my readers, please don't judge Saving Francesca by its cover! First published in Australia in 2003, this book has had a few different cover incarnations which can be seen at the end of the review. While attractive, it's somewhat misleading - this is not our typical teen high school story in any way. Saving Francesca introduces us to the characters in The Piper's Son when they are seventeen-year-old high school juniors, or Year Elevens, as they are called in Australia, which is where this novel is set.

Francesca Spinelli begins her story by telling us how her mother has ruined her life by deciding that she will spend the last two years of her high school career at St Sebastian's, a formerly all-boy school that has admitted thirty Year Eleven girls, instead of following her St Stella's friends to St Pius'. She goes on to tell us how her mother, Mia, continues to ruin her life by expecting Francesca to be more like her - socially active and extroverted. She expects Francesca to fight for change at school, make new friends and finding a boy to date. Mia Spinelli is a dynamo - university lecturer, involved mother, community activist and devoted friend who never sits still. Francesca is sullen and mostly silent until she comes home from school one day to find her mother in bed, listless, despondent and with nothing to say. Standing in the doorway to her mother's room Francesca says, "today the Mia we all know disappears and she becomes someone with nothing to say. Someone a bit like me." What seems on the surface like a fairly typical teen coming of age story turns out to be anything but. If you know  Melina Marchetta's astounding fantasy novel, Finnikin of the Rock, you know how skilled she is at building a rich, detailed world and populating it with characters who are complex, multi-dimensional, compelling and highly likable. I am thrilled to report that Marchetta's writing is equally brilliant, whether it be a fantasy world ripped apart by genocide or a modern day boys' school shaken up by the admittance of a handful of sixteen year old girls. Somehow the battles seem just as compelling, the stakes just as high.

What seem like insurmountable problems to Francesca - the growing distance between herself and her St Stella's friends and the unfortunate fact that the other St Stella's girls who are now at St Sebastian's are the very girls that Francesca's clique once ridiculed - are quickly dwarfed by the reality of her mother's illness and how her father and extended family address it, or refuse to address it. At first, no one puts a name on Mia's condition, but when they do, they say she's had a "bit of a breakdown," even though she has stopped eating, talking and getting out of bed. Although they seemed to be at odds constantly, Mia even tells Francesca that the c-section scar on her stomach is because she was in "such a hurry [to be born] and I wanted to have you all to myself for just a little while longer . . . Even back then we were battling each other," they also have a deep love for each other. This bond is evident from the start of the book. The Spinelli family, Mia, Robert, Francesca and ten year old Luca, all truly love and care for each other, which makes the disintegration of their family even harder to bear. Soon Francesca is shipped off to her Nonna Anna's, and Luca to Zia Teresa's, and Nonna Celia moves in to care for Mia. The two only see each other at school. Already feeling alienated and alone at St Sebastian's, without Mia's agenda as ballast,  Francesca finds herself becoming untethered. 

This turns out to be a good thing, though. In Mia's absence, Francesca begins to let the "outcasts" of St Stella's into her life. Tara Finke, the militant, social minded feminist, Justine Kalinsky, the shy piano-accordian player with sausage arms and Siobhan Sullivan, the Slut of St Stella's begin to fill the void. Along with Thomas Mackee, the musically minded "poster boy for Slobs, Inc." and Jimmy Hailler, infamous troublemaker and permanent attendee of detention, these people somehow come together to be the safety net and support that Francesca needs in the absence of her mother and in the absence of her old friends. And, as Francesca slowly opens up to these new friends, the truth of her friendship with her old St Stella's gang is uncovered as well. Upon reflection, words that once seemed like praise and kindness are now insulting and cruel. Standing in drama class and declining to participate, we learn that Francesca wasn't always shy.  As she tells the reader, 

I've perfected the art of shyness.  I had three years of practice at Stella's, and it's brought me great comfort over the years. When I was being my un-shy self, I got a different sort of spotlight. Not the one I wanted. I got detentions, was tested for hyperactivity, ridiculed, hassled, ostracized. By the time my Stella friends came to save me, I was ripe for it. Ready to go into some kind of retirement.

When Francesca was her un-shy self, she was also best friends with Siobhan Sullivan, now the Slut of St Stella's, and they were the kind of girls who got up and danced in front of people, the kind of girls who would "gallop around the playground like horses while the rest of the Stella girls sat in semicircles being young ladies" during recess in Year Seven. Francesca says that she and Siobhan spent most of their free time "making up dance moves to Kylie [Minogue] songs in our bedrooms and performing them on the playground until someone pointed out that we were showing off. My group found me just after that, thank God, and I never really spoke to Siobhan again. My friends always told me they wanted to rescue me from Siobhan, and I relished being saved because it meant that people stopped tapping me on the shoulder to point out what I was doing wrong." Once her friends rescue her, the friends who "made her ours" after also making her promise to "stop showing off," Francesca finds it easy to stop thinking, to stop having interests and pursuing them. Being part of this group to whom she feels grateful for treating her well and keeping her from garnering more negative attention seems like occupation enough.  But, as she asks herself toward the end of the book, "why did I feel so grateful that people treated me well?" When she begins to build authentic friendships with the Stella's girls at St Sebastian's, Francesca slowly learns to appreciate being accepted for who she is and how to accept others for who they are, regardless of other people's opinions. Instead of being grateful for conditional kindness, she is able to recognize and appreciate genuine kindness.

Francesca slips into friendship with Tara, Justine, Siobhan, Thomas and Jimmy with almost the same relief, although with a slightly stronger sense of awareness, that she embraced her old Stella friends.  At the same time, she is drifting away from her only anchor, her father.  Robert has always been the quiet voice of reason and acceptance, standing up for Francesca when her mother was battling with her and pushing her for more. But, Francesca's father is also the kind of person who responds to crisis with a solid, "Don't worry." As Francesca tells him at the end of the novel, "sometimes you don't let us talk about how we are feeling. If we feel scared you say, 'Nothing to worry about, guys,' but that doesn't make it go away. It makes it grow." Although it's not an easy or pain free road, Francesca and her father find a way to talk to each other and listen, and this is a crucial moment in the book. Although I have talked almost exclusively about Francesca and her friends in this review, as an adult reader one of the aspects of the book that struck me was the presence of caring adults in Francesca and her brother Luca's lives. Ms Quinn, a head at St Sebastian's, as well as a few of the more observant teachers, also give Francesca a safe harbor and a willing ear, although she goes out of her way not to talk about her mother with her friends and teachers. While sad at times, the foundation of family that Marchetta creates in Saving Francesca acts as a buoy, both for the reader and the characters.

There is a tone of hopefulness even at the bleakest moments, perhaps because Francesca herself, whether she knows it or not, is hopeful.  Even in her moments of doubt and realization, her voice is strong and clear and it almost seems hard to believe that she ever let her Stella's friends silence her.  But, if you have ever been a teenage girl or parented one, you know how entirely possible this is, even for the strongest voices. And, if you read Saving Francesca, you will also know just how intricately and lovingly Melina Marchetta knows her subject and how masterful she is at writing about it.  As a bonus for those of us who like a little love story, Marchetta miraculously weaves into the plot a heart racing infatuation with a Darcy-like Year Twelve who swaps romantic quotes from the movie Last of the Mohicans with Francesca. While Will Trombal never rushes in to save Francesca - she does that on her own - he does show up in the story at the right times to be moody and broody or to kiss her at a wedding.  When he finally is able to reveal his true feelings for her, it is also to tell her that he is sticking with his plan of spending the year abroad after he graduates because he needs to shake up his life a bit, even though he has intense feelings for her. When Will tells her that he will be on the first plane home if "she ever needs saving from anything . . . " Francesca responds, "You go and shake your foundations, Will. I think it's about time I saved myself."

There is one other quote from Francesca that I think sums up her spirit and the whole tone of the book. On the bus back from a few days at school camp, Francesca thinks about how easy it is to forget the things that make life matter as she looks around her:

I look past them to where Will and his friends are sitting, and he catches my eye for a moment and smiles. It's a weird smile, but it reaches his eyes and I bottle it. And I put it in my ammo pack that's kept right next to my soul. The only one that holds Mia's scent and Justine's spirit and Siobhan's hope and Tara's passions. Because if I'm going to wake up one morning and not be able to get out of bed, I'm going to need everything I've got to fight this bastard if a disease that could be sleeping inside of me.

Not the end of the book, but a great place to end this review!  Thank you, Melina Marchetta, for creating this group of characters for me to fall in love with!

American and Australian cover art from The Piper's Son
which finds Thomas Mackee, some five years after the events of Saving Francesca, and in dire need of some saving of his own. 

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