Despite loving all of Melina Marchetta's realistic fiction, I had never gone back and picked up her debut novel, Looking for Alibrandi. I thought it was high time I did.
For as long as Josephine Alibrandi can remember, it’s just been her, her mom, and her grandmother. Now it’s her final year at a wealthy Catholic high school. The nuns couldn’t be any stricter—but that doesn’t seem to stop all kinds of men from coming into her life.
Caught between the old-world values of her Italian grandmother, the nononsense wisdom of her mom, and the boys who continue to mystify her, Josephine is on the ride of her life. This will be the year she falls in love, the year she discovers the secrets of her family’s past—and the year she sets herself free.
Looking for Alibrandi is not as smooth and finessed as Marchetta's later works, but it is still an excellent book. Josephine is typical of Marchetta's main characters: self-absorbed at times, flawed, sometimes whiny, and yet also loving, loyal, and hard-working. She is real and human. The secondary characters are also wonderful, particularly Josephine's family. My favorite parts of the novel were the evolving relationships between Josephine and her father and grandmother. This is a generational story, and in this you see the beginnings of Marchetta's brilliance in addressing this that comes into even greater brilliance in The Piper's Son. In the conversations with her grandmother in particular, an interesting glimpse is given into immigrant life in 20th century Australia and the Italian community in Sydney. It was fascinating. The secondary characters are not as well drawn as they are in Marchetta's later works, but they are still very real and Josephine certainly carries her own story beautifully.
The plot itself is not connected to any one event. It is the story of Josephine's last year of high school and covers her changing dynamics with family and friends, her crushes, her ambitions, and her mistakes. All told in her first person voice it, the book reads almost like a diary and this format works perfectly for the episodic nature of the plot.
One thing I always appreciate about Marchetta's novels is the frankness and honesty with which she addresses teenage sexual situations, and that is particularly strong in this novel. I like the way that she shows several different perspectives and situations and how different people will make different decisions depending on what they believe about themselves, the person their with, and the world in general. I loved Josephine's assurance and confidence when she told Jacob she wasn't ready for sex. It is actually one of my favorite conversations I've read in a novel in a long time. And I love the way she and her friends discuss their various experiences towards the end. There is a lot of profound stuff there.
I can't believe I waited so long to to read this, and am so glad I finally did. If you enjoy her other books, particularly Saving Francesca and The Piper's Son, this is one you will want to red too.
And yes, I have tagged it as historical fiction as hard as it was. If a book takes place 20 years ago, it is historical fiction.