Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review: Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta
Reviewed by Maggie: April 3, 2013
Published May 9, 2006 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
Originally published Oct 5, 1992 by Puffin/Penguin Australia
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The first Marchetta. The only one I hadn't read. It was as precious to me as a last born in Charyn and I kept it hidden away for as long as I could. And then Carla declared that it was time to break the emergency glass on this book.

Josephine Alibrandi had me from the beginning. I knew I was dealing with a kindred spirit when on page 5 she says,
"Believe me, I could write a book about problems. Yet my mother says that as long as we have a roof over our head we have nothing to worry about. Her naivete really scares me."
Josie is whip smart, a scholarship student at a fancy private school who dreams about being a lawyer. She's been raised in the loving bosom of her single mother, Christina, who got pregnant at 16, and the suffocating bosom of her grandmother, Nonna Katia, who moved to Australia from Italy at 17. She knows her father is Michael Andretti, the boy next door, but she's never met him. Then one day, Michael Andretti shows up to visit her grandmother. Suddenly, the HSC (High School Certificate), mean girls, and her overbearing Nonna are the least of her problems. And then there's Jacob Coote, the boy from Cook High who caught her attention with a speech about voting and who dances pretty well too.

Guys, I never realized I was Italian-Australian. Okay, all joking aside, I know it's Marchetta and she speaks to me as few authors do, but still, imagine my surprise that as an ethnic Korean born and raised in the US, Josie Alibrandi is a character I related to on such a personal level. I can't even think of another character who comes close. Growing up, I remember thinking how much easier it would be if my family was European instead of Asian. It's not that I disliked who I was, but oh, to not have to prove my Americanness or my ability to speak English, to not have to worry about people pulling their eyes back and telling me to "go back to my country." I knew other immigrants and minorities dealt with their own prejudices, but I was convinced that Europeans, who didn't look so obviously foreign, had an easier time. Actually, scratch that. I was convinced they had an easy time, period. Josie's opinion of rich students like Ivy Lloyd and John Barton reminded me of that. She was sure their privilege cocooned them from her harsh reality. As a young girl, she was ostracized for being a bastard child by other Italians. As a student, she was called out for being on scholarship by other wealthy students. However, when someone says they would hate to be Italian after listening to her, she says,
"No. You can't hate what you're part of. What you are. I resent it most of the time, curse it always, but it'll be part of me till the day I die."
This. A thousand times this. I don't think you can sum up the immigrant experience in a few words, but this is pretty damn close.

I know I'm making it sound like an issue book because I was so impressed with Marchetta's portrayal of it, but it's not -- or it's not just that. I'm not surprised it's considered a modern classic in Australia and studied in school. Josie actually reminded me of another classic character. Remember when I was talking about gumption?
"I'm not ready for heaven yet and I don't think heaven is ready for me."
Josie, the spitfire, reminded me so much of Anne Shirley. They're both dreamers who won't settle for the status quo. Or personal attacks. Slates are nothing compared to modern science books. Jacob Coote, though, is no Gilbert Blythe. Still, Josie's interactions with Jacob, and her decision whether or not to sleep with him, and her regret at said decision, and her regret at her regret were so honest.

I don't think this is the best Marchetta (that honor goes to The Piper's Son and Froi of the Exiles), but it's the one closest to my heart.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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