Series or Stand Alone: both? The Piper's Son uses many of the same characters, but both could act as stand alone novels if pressed. However, you should read both of them.
Summary: Francesca is stuck at St. Sebastians, a boys' school that's pretends it's coed by giving the girls their own bathroom. Her only female companions are an ultra-feminist, a rumored slut, and an an impossibly dorky accordion player. The boys are no better, from Thomas who specializes in musical burping to Will, the perpetually frowning, smug moron that Francesca can't seem to stop thinking about.
Then there's Francesca's mother, who always thinks she knows what's best for Francesca—until she is suddenly stricken with acute depression, leaving Francesca lost, along, and without an inkling who she really is. Simultaneously humorous, poignant, and impossible to put down, this is the story of a girl who must summon the strength to save her family, her social life and—hardest of all—herself.
This isn't my first time at this rodeo. I just couldn't stay away. JK, I went to read The Piper's Son and saw that one of the first lines on the jacket said, "The characters from Saving Francesca are back--" And that's where I sighed, put the book down, and went to check out Saving Francesca. I remembered NOTHING of reading this book the first time (which happened to a few books I tried reading in college, the attention span just wasn't there).
I AM SO HAPPY I REREAD THIS BOOK, GUYS. I needed to be aware of how awesome Melina Marchetta is. I know that I was obviously going to read The Piper's Son, and that both Finnikin of the Rock and Jellicoe Road are on my to-read list, but I needed to be aware of how good Saving Francesca was. Otherwise, I would have gone on mistakenly thinking that it was forgettable.
Saving Francesca tells the story of Francesca, a girl whose rocky transfer to a previously all-boys school has been her biggest problem--until her mother refuses to get out of bed. In the throws of depression, Mrs. Spinelli can no longer act as the glue keeping her family together. Francesca's home life is in shambles, her old friends don't seem to give a crap about her, and life at St. Sebastian's School for Boys is no picnic. The boys don't want to deal with the girls and the other three girls in attendance weren't Frankie's friends at her old school. Eventually, Frankie bursts out of the quiet persona she acquired when hanging out with her old friends and befriends the girls AND the boys, creating friendships that anyone would envy and a support system to hold her up during the tough times she faces.
I want Francesca to be my best friend. For real. Or, at least I want her to be my high school self's best friend, because it would be weird for my 22 year-old self to be best friends with someone who has yet to go to college. She's a strong, well written female character that deals with a myriad of real issues. One of her biggest peeves ends up being the fact that people assume that she's a personality-less pushover because she's quiet in school. Frankie, I feel you. That was like my high school life. When the boys start mocking her and trying to push her buttons, she pushes right back. Even better, she becomes their best friend! Each of these characters is given depth, no matter how minor they might be. You go, Marchetta! That is not an easy task. I've read books recently where the PROTAGONIST lacks depth. Marchetta's writing brings each and every one of her characters to life.
Marchetta also brings up an important piece of information about friendships: friends don't have to like the exact same things or act the exact same way. Frankie often debates everything under the sun with Thomas, Siobhan, and the rest of the St. Sebastian's teens. These people do not have superficial things in common; they're friends simply because they enjoy each other's company and have come to care deeply for one another. Marchetta writes real friendships, and she does it well.
Also, she's not sappy about it. You'd think with the subject matter, it would be a big giant chorus of "THAT'S WHAT FRIENDS ARE FORRRR"--but it's not. It's funny. It's witty. It obviously gets sad at times, what with Francesca's family falling apart, but it's deep.
I'm going to stop vomiting rainbows, unicorns, and happiness all over this review at this point. If you dig contemporary YA, READ SAVING FRANCESCA. Melina Marchetta is a brilliant writer and crafted a fantastic novel about family and friendship. Highly recommended.
Rating: 5 - fantastic. shelf of favorites status.