After I read Jellicoe Road and fell in love with this author, I couldn’t wait to go back and read her first book, because it was the one that garnered all the awards. I have to say however that I think all of her later books are better than this first one, but it’s still very good, and definitely worth reading.
Josie Alibrandi, 17, is a high school senior at St. Martha’s, in a suburb just outside of Sydney, Australia. She lives with her single mother Christina, who was practically disowned by her strict Italian family when she got pregnant with Josie at age 16 and the father took off. Josie, whose school is dominated by rich Anglo-Saxon Australians, feels doubly persecuted, both for being illegitimate and for not being “pure” Australian. Still, life is fairly normal until Josie’s “nonna” (grandmother) decides to be a surrogate mother for a friend’s son who has just moved to town, Michael Andretti. Michael, it turns out, is Josie’s father. And suddenly Josie’s world turns upside down.
Discussion: Josie is overly focused on her perceived status as a victim, because she doesn’t have a family with money, prestige, or a nuclear family, and because she doesn’t look Anglo-Saxon. She is constantly on the defensive, seeing prejudice even where there is none, and antagonizing people when they really don’t deserve it. She thinks her own problems are worse than anyone else’s. When not obsessing over herself, however, she is smart and funny and interesting. But she has a great deal of growing up to do. Take this exchange, between Josie and her mom after Christina announces she is going on a date and Josie throws a fit:
‘Does me being your mother make me less human, Josie?’ she yelled, grabbing hold of my shoulder. ‘I have needs like other people, and once in a while I like being with people my age.’
‘Oh great. So now I find out she regrets having me and I’ve stopped her from being human,’ I yelled, walking to the kitchen and opening the oven.
‘Well, just remember that he won’t just want to hold your hand,’ I said, throwing the meat loaf down the sink.
‘How dare you say that to me?’ she said, shaking her head almost sadly.
I stood by my desk and stuck my fingers in my ears so I could ignore her, but she walked over and pushed me back.
‘You are such a selfish, unreasonable child, Josephine. One day you’ll understand.’
‘Screw your understanding,’ I yelled, throwing my books across the room angrily. ‘Why should I understand you when you’ve never understood what I’ve gone through? I’ve suffered in my life, you know, and you’ve never understood.’
She walked away in disgust.”
But finally Josie starts to change. She actually starts listening to her nonna, and learns a lot about her mother and the rest of the family that she didn’t realize, especially the extent to which her suffering is nothing compared to what they endured. And she gets to know her father, who also has much to teach her about perspective and forgiveness. I loved this wonderful discussion Michael has with Josie, when she asks him what happened between him and her mom:
‘We can look at it now, Josie, and say that you were a result of it, so it had to be worth it, and we can never regret you as long as both of us live, but it was a thing that we couldn’t handle. Kids shouldn’t play grown-up games. I don’t mean having the baby bit either, because I wasn’t around for that so I don’t know how hard it was. I mean the sex bit. It was a whole new ball game for me, because I was involved emotionally and not just physically. What we did made her feel so ashamed and me so inadequate. I wasn’t making her feel good as far as I was concerned, so I hated her. When I think of it now, very few men know how to make teenage girls feel good emotionally as well as physically. They always lack something. It comes with practice.”
Josie also falls in love, and not with a boy that would “have people look upon me with envy” as she used to envision, but one that just makes her feel good. But she has to learn that one must give and not just take. After she finds out she has hurt Jacob, she tells him she is sorry, but he isn’t buying it:
‘Why is it that every time I apologize to someone these days they won’t accept it?’ I asked in frustration.
‘Because you probably come across as insincere. You probably think that an I’m sorry is going to make you feel better,’ he said angrily.
‘I didn’t realize.’
‘You never do,’ he said in a tired tone. ‘You go about whining and wailing about the way people treat you, but you never think about the way you treat people. I was hurt. But you wouldn’t understand that, would you?”
I’ve quoted way too much, and this isn’t even my favorite book of Marchetta’s! But her characters are so good – so alive, and so real – I love them all. They try so hard, like Josie does. She sincerely wants to be better and get things right, but somehow keeps screwing up. But she doesn’t give up, and you just know that eventually, she’s going to figure out how to be a whole and mature person in the world, even when she doesn’t know all the answers.
Evaluation: One reason Marchetta got so many awards for this book was her groundbreaking portrayal of ethnic bias in Australia. But in addition, she is just a darn good writer, and an excellent conjurer of character. It is probably my least favorite of all of her books I have read so far, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a terrific read! I highly recommend it.
Published in the U.S. by Orchard Books, a Grolier Company, 1999. First published in Australia by Penguin Books Australia, 1992