Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

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Marchetta, Melina.  2003.  SAVING FRANCESCA.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf.  ISBN: 0-375-82982-2.

Francesca Spinelli is a typical sixteen-year-old girl.  She lives in the Sydney suburb of Annadale with her mother, Mia, father, Robert (aka “Bob the Builder”), and younger brother, Luca.  Francesca worries about fitting in at St. Sebastian’s, a former boys' school, where she is attending Year 11 because her old school, St. Stella’s, only goes through Year 10.

Francesca’s world changes dramatically one morning when Mia, a university professor, who was always the driving force in their extended family, refuses to get out of bed.  When their father has a hard time coping with caring for his wife and running the household, Francesca and Luca are temporarily sent to stay with different relatives.  Finally they convince their father to allow them to return home.  Francesca has extremely conflicted feelings regarding her mother’s depression.  She feels guilty having fun when her mother is depressed.  She worries that the depression is hereditary and someday she will find herself in its grip.  She wonders if the family was just too happy and if this is some kind of punishment from God for being so smug and happy.  Francesca feels embarrassed about her mother's condition and tries to keep it a secret.

In addition to dealing with her chaotic homelife, Francesca deals with the sort of things most teenage girls deal with.  She has a crush on Will Trombal, one of the Year 12 house leaders, who likes her, but has another girlfriend.  She bonds with three of the other former St. Stella’s girls:  Tara Finke (the activist), Siobhan Sullivan (the slut), and Justine Kalinsky (the quiet one who plays the piano-accordion).  These are girls that she never would have associated with at St. Stella’s.  Francesca is forced to accept that her old clique from St. Stella’s are no longer her friends and she shouldn’t care what they think of her new friends.  Francesca and her girlfriends also befriend two of the St. Sebastian’s boys, Jimmy Hailler, a bad boy who is perpetually in detention who cheers Mia up when he invites himself to her house, and Thomas Mackee, who is obsessed with music and in a punk band.  She finally shares the story of her mother’s depression with her friends and finds that it doesn't scare them away the way it would have her image conscious "friends" from St. Stella's.     

A chance meeting with one of her mother’s colleagues from the university gives Francesca a possible clue to her mother’s depression.  She discovers that about a year earlier Mia had a miscarriage.  When Francesca confronts her father about the pregnancy and miscarriage, he breaks down and tells her that he feels guilty about it because he did not want the baby.  Not long after receiving this news, Francesca has a “mini-breakdown” of her own.  She leaves school and boards a train and just rides, ending up in an Australian town with the unusual name of Woy Woy.  She calls her father who comes to pick her up and when she returns home her friends are waiting at her house.  Mia has been getting better gradually and is even able to celebrate her daughter's return.  By the end of the book, Francesca even begins a tentative relationship with Will Trombal, who has broken up with his girlfriend.

Although it is set in Australia, Saving Francesca is a novel that every teenage girl (and even former teenage girls) can relate to.  The slang ("pashing" for kissing, "deep and meaingfuls" for heart-to-heart talks) and educational system (years rather than grades, an excessive use of butcher paper for school projects, house masters) are a little different, but the conflicts are universal:   family, friends, and school.  Melina Marchetta is a teacher in a school that is similar to St. Sebastian’s and she has said, “It was only when I started to write about my own world that things really clicked and I was able to produce a novel.”  (Marchetta Interview)  This explains why all the characters in Saving Francesca ring so true.

An interesting, particularly Australian aspect to the story, is the strong presence of people of Italian ancestry in Australia.  Francesca's family are called by the Italian words "Nonna" (grandmother), "Nonno" (grandfather), and "Tia" (aunt).  The names Francesca, Mia, and cousin Angelina reflect the Italian heritage, although Francesca was allowed to pick her brother's name and chose Luca not because it was Italian, but because of the Suzanne Vega song.  Additionally, there is the story of the S-biscuit recipe brought from Sicily, which both Francesca's Nonna and Will Trombal's Nonna claim for their own, but turns out to have been stolen from someone else.  Additionally, someone tells Francesca the story of her grandmother stealing her sister's boyfriend, which makes Francesca compare Sicily to "Melrose Place" and her Nonna to Heather Locklear. 

More important than what the critics say is what the teenagers themselves say.  Saving Francesca is definitely connecting with its audience.   

The ending is meaningful – Francesca finds and “saves” herself, coming to terms with who she really is. ... Melina’s mind is awesome, making little things so funny, and the big things seem littler.   (Nangel, Year 11, Canberra, ACT)

I read this book in the matter of hours and I know people say that they can’t put books down but this book was literally glued to my hand and it only let me release it to turn a page. … By far this is the best book I have read this year and probably in my life.  (Michelle, aged 17, Melbourne, Victoria)

One criticism that has been made about Saving Francesca is that the pop culture references may make it dated.  The pop culture references help to establish a time to go with the place.  I believe that it is better to define Francesca in a concrete way as an Australian girl circa 2000 than to leave time and place nebulous and hope to keep the novel from being dated.  With retro radio stations and hundreds of cable channels rerunning TV shows and movies ad naseum, future teens will probably have at least a passing familiarity with the hits of Francesca's time.  When a novel deals with universal themes like the teenage problems Francesca faces and her family's efforts to deal with her mother's depression, it will never become dated.  Judy Blume's Forever has a 1970s setting which has not diminished its popularity over the last thirty years.  Saving Francesca is a better piece of literature deserves to be read well into the future.

Works cited:
Interview with Melina Marchetta at Dymocks Booksellers.  Accessed February 8, 2006.

YARA website.  Accessed February 8, 2006.

By Monica Wood