Melina Marchetta, from Australia, is definitely one of my favorite authors.
Francesca Spinelli, 16, has just transferred to St. Sebastian’s from St. Stella’s at the start of her Year Eleven, because her previous school only went through Year Ten. St. Sebastian’s is a formerly all-boys school that is newly co-ed, so there are 750 boys and just 30 girls. Only four including Francesca are from St. Stella’s, so they begin to hang around together, even though they weren’t really friends before. The St. Stella girls who were in Francesca’s group have moved on, and weren’t such great friends in the first place. The new school is a lonely and alienating experience for quite a while.
Meanwhile, at home, Francesca’s world has also turned upside down. Her upbeat, manic mother Mia has gone into a depression and won’t leave her room. Her family starts to fall apart. Francesca tries to provide comfort for her ten-year-old and much loved brother Luca, but she is no substitute for her mother. She blames her father for her mother’s state, and relationships at home rapidly deteriorate.
For a long time, Francesca is totally at sea. Always a good student, she begins to get detention a lot, and it is in detention that she bonds with a group of kids, besides the former Stella’s girls, that will become her closest friends. She also finds herself attracted to one of the House leaders, Will Trombal, with whom she has sparred since she started at St. Sebastian’s.
Still, Marchetta is too good to give us insta-change. Francesca continues to struggle with who she is and the changes in her family. Her fear and anger lead her to take a radical step that causes everyone in her life to reevaluate their priorities.
Discussion: The characters in this book, especially Francesca’s new friends, are absolutely wonderful and so uniquely different from the usual “friends of the protagonist” fare. Francesca is a great character as well: she is basically a good person, but never had so many challenges before. She is forced to grow up in several different directions at once, and the author does an excellent job with it. Francesca changes slowly, with some steps backward along the way, but finally comes to figure out how to take charge of her life, instead of just reacting to whatever comes along.
Evaluation: This author creates some of the best characters I’ve “met” in a long time. And not one is static – not even the bit players; they all grow in some way. It may sound from my summary like this is a depressing, issue-oriented book, but it’s not that at all. This is a happy, character-driven story, and this reader was happy in addition for having another book to read by this excellent author.
Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 2004