The Piper's Son

by Melina Marchetta

Cover image

Series: Francesca #2
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Copyright: 2010
Printing: 2011
ISBN: 0-7636-5458-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 330

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Tom Mackee's family has fallen apart. The impetus was the death of his uncle Joe in the London tube terrorist bombings, but that was only the start. He destroyed his chances with the only woman he really loved. His father's drinking got out of control, his mother left with his younger sister to live in a different city, and he refused to go with them and abandon his father. But then, six months later, his father abandoned him anyway. As this novel opens, Tom collapses while performing a music set, high on drugs and no sleep, and wakes up to discover his roommates have been fired from their jobs for stealing, and in turn have thrown him out of their apartment. He's at rock bottom.

The one place he can turn for a place to stay is his aunt Georgie, the second (although less frequent) viewpoint character of this book. She was the one who took the trip to the UK to try to find out what happened and retrieve her brother's body, and the one who had to return to Australia with nothing. Her life isn't in much better shape than Tom's. She's kept her job, but she's pregnant by her ex-boyfriend but barely talking to him, since he now has a son by another woman he met during their separation. And she's not even remotely over her grief.

The whole Finch/Mackee family is, in short, a disaster. But they have a few family relationships left that haven't broken, some underlying basic decency, and some patient and determined friends.

I should warn up-front, despite having read this book without knowing this, that this is a sequel to Saving Francesca, set five years later and focusing on secondary characters from the original novel. I've subsequently read that book as well, though, and I don't think reading it first is necessary. This is one of the rare books where being a sequel made it a better stand-alone novel. I never felt a gap of missing story, just a rich and deep background of friendships and previous relationships that felt realistic. People are embedded in networks of relationships even when they feel the most alone, and I really enjoyed seeing that surface in this book. All those patterns from Tom's past didn't feel like information I was missing. They felt like glimpses of what you'd see if you looked into any other person's life.

The plot summary above might make The Piper's Son sound like a depressing drama fest, but Marchetta made an excellent writing decision: the worst of this has already happened before the start of the book, and the rest is in the first chapter. This is not at all a book about horrible things happening to people. It's a book about healing. An authentic, prickly, angry healing that doesn't forget and doesn't turn into simple happily-ever-after stories, but does involve a lot of recognition that one has been an ass, and that it's possible to be less of an ass in the future, and maybe some things can be fixed.

A plot summary might fool you into thinking that this is a book about a boy and his father, or about dealing with a drunk you still love. It's not. The bright current under this whole story is not father-son bonding. It's female friendships. Marchetta pulls off a beautiful double-story, writing a book that's about Tom, and Georgie, and the layered guilt and tragedy of the Finch/Mackee family, but whose emotional heart is their friends. Francesca, Justine, absent Siobhan. Georgie's friend Lucia. Ned, the cook, and his interactions with Tom's friends. And Tara Finke, also mostly absent, but perfectly written into the story in letters and phone calls.

Marchetta never calls unnecessary attention to this, keeping the camera on Tom and Georgie, but the process of reading this book is a dawning realization of just how much work friendship is doing under the surface, how much back-channel conversation is happening off the page, and how much careful and thoughtful and determined work went into providing Tom a floor, a place to get his feet under him, and enough of a shove for him to pull himself together. Pulling that off requires a deft and subtle authorial touch, and I'm in awe at how well it worked.

This is a beautifully written novel. Marchetta never belabors an emotional point, sticking with a clear and spare description of actions and thoughts, with just the right sentences scattered here and there to expose the character's emotions. Tom's family is awful at communication, which is much of the reason why they start the book in the situation they're in, but Marchetta somehow manages to write that in a way that didn't just frustrate me or make me want to start banging their heads together. She somehow conveys the extent to which they're trying, even when they're failing, and adds just the right descriptions so that the reader can follow the wordless messages they send each other even when they can't manage to talk directly. I usually find it very hard to connect with people who can only communicate by doing things rather than saying them. It's a high compliment to the author that I felt I understood Tom and his family as well as I did.

One bit of warning: while this is not a story of a grand reunion with an alcoholic father where all is forgiven because family, thank heavens, there is an occasional wiggle in that direction. There is also a steady background assumption that one should always try to repair family relationships, and a few tangential notes about the Finches and Mackees that made me think there was a bit more abuse here than anyone involved wants to admit. I don't think the book is trying to make apologies for this, and instead is trying to walk the fine line of talking about realistically messed up families, but I also don't have a strong personal reaction to that type of story. If you have an aversion to "we should all get along because faaaaamily" stories, you may want to skip this book, or at least go in pre-warned.

That aside, the biggest challenge I had in reading this book was not breaking into tears. The emotional arc is just about perfect. Tom and Georgie never stay stuck in the same emotional cycle for too long, Marchetta does a wonderful job showing irritating characters from a slightly different angle and having them become much less irritating, and the interactions between Tom, Tara, and Francesca are just perfect. I don't remember reading another book that so beautifully captures that sensation of knowing that you've been a total ass, knowing that you need to stop, but realizing just how much work you're going to have to do, and how hard that work will be, once you own up to how much you fucked up. That point where you keep being an ass for a few moments longer, because stopping is going to hurt so much, but end up stopping anyway because you can't stand yourself any more. And stopping and making amends is hard and hurts badly, and yet somehow isn't quite as bad as you thought it was going to be.

This is really great stuff.

One final complaint, though: what is it with mainstream fiction and the total lack of denouement? I don't read very much mainstream fiction, but this is the second really good mainstream book I've read (after The Death of Bees) that hits its climax and then unceremoniously dumps the reader on the ground and disappears. Come back here! I wasn't done with these people! I don't need a long happily-ever-after story, but give me at least a handful of pages to be happy with the characters after crying with them for hours! ARGH.

But, that aside, the reader does get that climax, and it's note-perfect to the rest of the book. Everyone is still themselves, no one gets suddenly transformed, and yet everything is... better. It's the kind of book you can trust.

Highly, highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-11-14

Last modified and spun 2017-11-15