Saving Francesca

by Melina Marchetta

Cover image

Series: Francesca #1
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Copyright: 2003
Printing: 2011
ISBN: 0-307-43371-4
Format: Kindle
Pages: 245

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Francesca is in Year Eleven in St. Sebastian's, in the first year that the school opened to girls. She had a social network and a comfortable place at her previous school, but it only went to Year Ten. Most of her friends went to Pius, but St. Sebastian's is a better school. So Francesca is there, one of thirty girls surrounded by boys who aren't used to being in a co-ed school, and mostly hanging out with the three other girls who had gone to her previous school. She's miserable, out of place, and homesick for her previous routine.

And then, one morning, her mother doesn't get out of bed. Her mother, the living force of energy, the one who runs the household, who pesters Francesca incessantly, who starts every day with a motivational song. She doesn't get out of bed the next day, either. Or the day after that. And the bottom falls out of Francesca's life.

I come at this book from a weird angle because I read The Piper's Son first. It's about Tom Mackee, one of the supporting characters in this book, and is set five years later. I've therefore met these people before: Francesca, quiet Justine who plays the piano accordion, political Tara, and several of the Sebastian boys. But they are much different here as their younger selves: more raw, more childish, and without the understanding of settled relationships. This is the story of how they either met or learned how to really see each other, against the backdrop of Francesca's home life breaking in entirely unexpected ways.

I think The Piper's Son was classified as young adult mostly because Marchetta is considered a young adult writer. Saving Francesca, by comparison, is more fully a young adult novel. Instead of third person with two tight viewpoints, it's all first person: Francesca telling the reader about her life. She's grumpy, sad, scared, anxious, and very self-focused, in the way of a teenager who is trying to sort out who she is and what she wants. The reader follows her through the uncertainty of maybe starting to like a boy who may or may not like her and is maddeningly unwilling to commit, through realizing that the friends she had and desperately misses perhaps weren't really friends after all, and into the understanding of what friendship really means for her. But it's all very much caught up in Francesca's head. The thoughts of the other characters are mostly guesswork for the reader.

The Piper's Son was more effective for me, but this is still a very good book. Marchetta captures the gradual realization of friendship, along with the gradual understanding that you have been a total ass, extremely well. I was somewhat less convinced by Francesca's mother's sudden collapse, but depression does things like that, and by the end of the book one realizes that Francesca has been somewhat oblivious to tensions and problems that would have made this less surprising. And the way that Marchetta guides Francesca to a deeper understanding of her father and the dynamics of her family is emotionally realistic and satisfying, although Francesca's lack of empathy occasionally makes one want to have a long talk with her.

The best part of this book are the friendships. I didn't feel the moments of catharsis as strongly here as in The Piper's Son, but I greatly appreciated Marchetta's linking of the health of Francesca's friendships to the health of her self-image. Yes, this is how this often works: it's very hard to be a good friend until you understand who you are inside, and how you want to define yourself. Often that doesn't come in words, but in moments of daring and willingness to get lost in a moment. The character I felt the most sympathy for was Siobhan, who caught the brunt of Francesca's defensive self-absorption in a way that left me wincing even though the book never lingers on her. And the one who surprised me the most was Jimmy, who possibly shows the most empathy of anyone in the book in a way that Francesca didn't know how to recognize.

I'm not unhappy about reading The Piper's Son first, since I don't think it needs this book (and says some of the same things in a more adult voice, in ways I found more powerful). I found Saving Francesca a bit more obvious, a bit less subtle, and a bit more painful, and I think I prefer reading about the more mature versions of these characters. But this is a solid, engrossing psychological story with a good emotional payoff. And, miracle of miracles, even a bit of a denouement.

Followed by The Piper's Son.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-12-29

Last modified and spun 2017-12-30