Monday, March 14, 2011

REVIEW: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

by Melina Marchetta
Released on 05.09.2006
243 pages
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Source: Library

Francesca is stuck at St. Sebastians, a boys' school that's pretends it's coed by giving the girls their own bathroom.  Her only female companions are an ultra-feminist, a rumored slut, and an 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 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 (from GoodReads).

REVIEW: First off, let me say that there are stories that you love, then there are stories you feel like you are in, and then there are stories in which you assume a character's role.  Somehow, Saving Francesca is, without exception, all three of these things.  Originally, I didn't plan on writing a blog review of this one.  My intention was to read it before reading The Piper's Son, Marchetta's newest book that just released last Tuesday.  I was going to give it a quick review on GoodReads and call it a day.  Then I started reading.  And Francesca and her words crept into my ear, down my throat and into my heart.  There was no way I couldn't not talk about how wonderful this book is or how lovingly poignant and beautiful her story is to read.

I never expected the amazing depth the book has judging by the cartoon clad cover. Yeah, I know, color me a snob, but it was my first Marchetta - what did I know?  Francesca is one of the most wonderful, tender, vulnerable and strong characters I've ever met. She hid her true personality in junior high due to peer pressure, but it was the sneaky, subtle, mean girl kind of pressure - you know what I'm talking about.  The kind where you don't even know you're giving the best parts of yourself away because you are under the spell of belonging.  Anywho, strong and vulnerable, right?  Sounds like a flipping cliche, right?  Well, maybe, but Francesca OWNS it.  Seriously, flip that cliche over.  It will say: MADE IN SYDNEY BY FRANKIE, BABY.

And Francesca really is the story.  She's the oldest of two and adores her little brother (so refreshing to see).  You get the sense of discord right from beginning, as her mother simply won't get out of bed.  Her mother absolutely runs their lives.  So, in this home, no active mother = no family foundation.  Her father is completely devoted to her and tries to cope as best as he knows how to, but Francesca and her little brother have to take second place.  It is heart wrenching to see their pain, and it's a powerful reminder that a family is a unit.  When one member suffers, everyone does.  Francesca is really in a perfect storm of a situation.  On one front, she is feeling a sense of having no place in a hostile new school.  The old, pre-mean girl Francesca could've adjusted better, but the more subdued Francesca does not, and she feels lost.  On another front, her type-A, encouraging, overbearing (and sometimes resented) mother is no longer with it enough for her to get support from.  On the third front, Francesca is struggling to connect with people.  She has this group of quasi-friends, but she doesn't really feel like she has anyone specific to turn to.

That's the plot in a nutshell.  Francesca Spinelli is learning how to cope with a new school unprepared and unwilling to accommodate its new female student body.  Her dad has to be  emotional support for her mom, she has to be that for her little brother, which leaves no one to be it for her.  She's learning to reclaim her own sense of self that she gave away years earlier in an attempt to fit in.  Along the way, the absolute best supporting cast of characters I've read in so long comes into her life and made me laugh, *snort*, hoot!, awwww and yes, even cry.  Usually, I'd stop right here and declare Marchetta a Master of Characterization, but honestly, she's just a Master, period.  Marchetta is a Master Writer, and that's all there is to it.

I'm not exaggerating - the mastery extends to setting, as well.  The story takes place in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, and yes, there are direct references to the area.  What I am really talking about, though, is Marchetta's ability to write about a very specific place and make it feel like you are walking in your own neighborhood.  I loved it, and, as a former Catholic school girl who grew up in an area with significant Italian, Irish and Eastern European influences, the school setting, community, and little nuances that make this story come to life made me feel like I was touring my own high school and city.  Adding in Francesca's emotionally charged narrative and her authentic, true-to-life friends made me feel like I was time traveling back to my former teenage self.
This book is heartbreaking and hilarious - there is such a blemish-free balance between the serious tone and the laugh-out-loud moments.  It's like a friend holding you while you cry and then that person says something that sets off a huge chain of laughs that makes you think, "Yeah, this is it - this is living."  There is just something so special about this book. . .  It's a perfect story, and I absolutely encourage you to pick it up and experience it for yourself.

Bonus:  One of the hilarious subplots of the book is a battle over a stolen recipe for Sicilian S-biscuits involving Francesca's grandmother and her love interest/adversary's grandmother.  The S-biscuits are a real fact in Marchetta's life, and my very-eager-to-try-them hubs oh-so-subtlety found this recipe for them. . .  right from family recipe box of  Marchetta's own mother.  Enjoy!

QUOTES (for the record, the whole book is one big, long quote - it's that good):

"I miss the Stella girls telling me what I am.  That I'm sweet and placid and accommodating and loyal and nonthreatening and good to have around.  And Mia.  I want her to say, 'Frankie, you're silly, you're lazy, you're talented, you're passionate, you're restrained, you're blossoming, you're contrary.'
I want to be an adjective again.
But I'm a noun
A nothing.  A nobody.  A no one"
-page 44

"For a moment I can't help thinking how decent he it - that there's some hope for him beyond the obnoxious image he displays.  Maybe deep down he is a sensitive guy, who sees us as real people with real issues.  I want to say something nice.  Some kind of thanks.  I stand there, rehearsing in in my mind.
'Oh my God,' he says, 'did you see that girl's tits?'
Maybe not today."

"'. . . And secondly, losing your virginity doesn't make you a slut.  I slept with your father when I was your age. . . '
'Mia,' my father roared from the other room.
'What?  So we're going to lie to her now,?' she shouted back.
He walked in.  'What if your mother finds out?  Or my mother?'
'Robert, it was twenty years ago.  I don't think there's much they can do.'
He looked at me, pointing a finger.  "No sex for you.'  He used the Soup Nazi's accent from Seinfeld.
-page 77

"'Do you think I look like Sophia Loren?' I ask him as we get into the car.
'I used to tell your mother she looked like Sophia Loren.'  He looks at me, frowning, and then it registers. 'Oh God, some guy's using that line on you, isn't he?'
'Not just 'some guy,' I tell him. "The guy."
-page 228


  1. Your review made me want to read the book all over again! I love it so much!!!!!!!!

  2. I'm sold! Definitely getting this one when I'm finished with my batch of library books. Marchetta is sounding like she might be one of my favorite writers.

  3. I need to go reread this one soon! Maybe I'll go on a Melina Marchetta binge... :)

    Such a phenomenally great review!! LOVED it!

  4. My goodness Linds, you write a hell of a review. I'm not even going to comment on your writing again because you know you are made of awesome. I need to read a book by her, it's just ridiculous that I haven't. I don't know what my problem is *smacks self*. Would you read this one before reading The Piper's Son, or do you think I could pick that one up first?

  5. @YAbib - I knooooooow! I love it so much - Jellicoe Road and Finnikin of the Rock, here I come!

    @Rummanah If she doesn't turn out to be one, I will totally buy that copy of the book off of you.

    @Ashley - I think Marchetta binges should absolutely be encouraged!

    @Jenny It's not necessary that you read this one first. I will say that I liked this one just slightly better than The Piper's Son, BUT they are both wonderful. If you like Marchetta after reading one, you will absolutely want to read the other. Tom, the main character of TPS has a more minor role in this, so it's funny and touching to see his development from here to TPS. If you want straight up, exquisitely written YA, read this one first, but if you want an older read - Tom's about 22 in TPS, and his Aunt Georgie is 41 - then read TPS first - both stand on their own, though. It's not necessary to read one to understand the other - that was long winded, but I hope it helps!

  6. ZOMG! Can't believe the S-biscuit recipe is out in the open like that!

    I loved that little internal banter from Frankie. "Your grandmother stole my grandmother's S-biscuit recipe as you well know!" hehehehe

    Linds, this review is amazing and reminded me of all the reasons I love the book. Yes, you feel like Frankie's upside world and its effects on you just creeps into your heart, and the setting.. wow! It's like your own street.

    I'm glad you decided to review. I loved reading your thoughts!


  7. I read this quite awhile ago, but I loved it! This is one of my fave books. I think I might add it to my TBR pile to read again. I totally forgot about the S-biscuits! Great quotes. I'm interested in The Piper's Son. Fab review :)

  8. If you liked Saving Francesca, you're going to love Jellicoe Road! It has a lot of the elements about S.F. - strong dialogue and great friendships. It doesn't have family exacly, but it has the longing for family. And great romance. It's a much more complex tale. It's hard to read at first, but you'll treasure it once you get into it.

  9. Brilliant review! You make me want to go read it again. I just love the way Marchetta's book make you feel, like you are there with the characters.

    So glad you are loving Marchetta's book. She is awesome :)

  10. I'm one of those people who hasn't read any of her books yet...don't shoot. I'm hearing tons and tons of great things about her writing lately. I even own Jelicoe Road. I'm for sure adding this to my tbr list! Great review! :)

  11. Linds, this is an excellent review! I love all of Melina Marchetta's books - so full of soul. I can't wait to get my hands on Saving Francesca and The Piper's Son. If you haven't read Finnikin of the Rock yet, you definitely should - standalone high fantasy novel that totally blew me away...

  12. LINDS! Your reviews are so amazing! And I can't even express my LOOOOVE for this book (or any of Marchetta's other books) seriously, your review mentioned like, everything, i loved about it. AGH, I'm just grinning like crazy because it reminds me how much I love this book, francesca, Will, Luca, the girls, Tom, Jimmy... :p LOL sorry for the rambling, awesome review!

  13. I LOVED THIS BOOK!!! Seriously, finished, rated it five starts on GR, and prompyly added it to my 'favorites' on there (do you think it's odd that three of my favorites on GR also happen to be Aussie offerings? It's short list. . . ). I got this from the library, but I need to get a copy to keep. . .