September 5, 2011

Saving Francesca: A Psychtember Review

Patient: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

Presentation: Francesca is stuck at St. Sebastian's, a boys' school that 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, alone, 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.
(From Goodreads)


Axis 1. Characters

Melina Marchetta nails the voice in this novel. Frankie is dryly witty, making all these observations about school life that reminded me, in a way, of Jane Austen's subtly deprecating social commentary (though obviously the style and tone are quite different). It's enjoyable to see Frankie grow through the course of the novel, learning to allow herself to just be herself. I like how she begins to appreciate all the little things in life that cheer her up.

Thomas Mackee was an oddly endearing character. He comes across as a jerk, especially at the beginning, but at the same time you want to believe he's a good guy. Occasionally he demonstrates flashes of sensitivity that keep you hoping. I wasn't as big a fan of Will, but I have to admit he does develop as a person. He behaves pretty badly towards Frankie at the start (and also, spoiler in white, highlight to read: I didn't like the fact that he cheated on his girlfriend), but eventually he realizes that he shouldn't be so structured and that he needs to shake up his life.

I had a difficult time getting a handle on the relationship between Frankie and her mom. My first impression was that there was a lot of tension going on there, and resentment from Frankie — she calls her mom "Mia" and claims she's always trying to run Frankie's life. But then when it becomes apparent her mom is clinically depressed, Frankie reacts differently than I might have expected and it seems the two of them are closer than I'd thought. I felt like I was missing a whole dimension of their relationship, and I ended up feeling disconnected from Frankie's emotions over her mother's depression for a good part of the story.

It was sweet to see Frankie's strong connection with her younger brother; there aren't enough sibling relationships like that in YA. I also loved the friendships that Frankie forges throughout the novel. The bonding that happens between four such different individuals (Frankie, Siobhan, Justine and Tara) is a treat to watch as it unfolds. Most of the characters are multi-dimensional, defying stereotype. The one I wish I could have gotten to know better was Justine, as I feel like we don't really get to see much beyond the surface of her.

Axis 2. Premise/plot

There isn't one overarching cohesive plot. The mom's depression serves as the catalyst for the story, and also keeps the momentum going to some degree, although the pacing is quite slow. It's very much a character-driven book, with Frankie discovering how to become the person she once was (and lost) and quit pretending to be someone she isn't.

Axis 3. Writing Style

I really liked the subtle humour in this novel; the tone is fresh and distinctive. Indeed, I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions as I read. The Italian influence in the book also really gave it character; the inter-generational family provided a lively cast, and the occasional Italian words made it feel more authentic.

The dialogue is real and clever, flavourful and unique. The guys sound like teenage guys you might know in your own life: frequently obnoxious, and occasionally sweet in their own way.

We see Frankie's life through snippets, rather than one continuous narrative. I didn't mind this for the most part, as it seemed to fit Frankie's way of viewing the world. However, I did sometimes feel like I got told things when I wanted to see them instead. This was particularly the case for the mother's depression, its effect on the family, and Frankie's interactions with her mother. We get to be privy to so many interactions with Frankie's friends and acquaintances from school, but I wanted to see more of the family life. Later on, after her mother has been depressed for a while, the impact does become more apparent, particularly in how Frankie's dad changes.

Axis 4. Psychological Accuracy

We don't get to see that much of her mother Mia's symptoms, but several of the ones we do see are indicative of a major depressive episode. She's lost her appetite, has no energy — to the point where she can't get out of bed — and just generally seems to have acquired a different personality overnight. This behaviour continues for months, so she definitely meets the 2-week criterion for a major depressive episode.

There were a couple of Mia's symptoms I was less sure about. One was that she often vomits in the morning, which as far as I'm aware is not a typical symptom of depression. The other is that she seems to have enough energy to converse with Jimmy, but not so much with her own daughter. I can see that she would likely try harder to appear "normal" around a stranger, but it seems convenient that she is always up for a chat with him. Depression usually isn't quite that flexible, from what I understand. But I did enjoy seeing how Jimmy helps her mom by being someone she can talk to who isn't a member of her family, someone who doesn't inherently make her feel guilty about her depression and the toll it's taking on her loved ones.

I have to admit, it frustrated me that Mia is never taken to a mental health professional. As my education in psychology placed a strong emphasis on evidence-based treatment, I dearly wanted to sit down and have a long chat with Frankie's dad about anti-depressants. His dismissive attitude, while understandable to a certain extent, would not be helpful in a discussion about treatment options. And medication aside, psychotherapy has also been shown effective in treating many cases of depression. Spoiler about the ending: while I do think it was very healthy for Mia to finally talk about the miscarriage, and could certainly signify a turning point, I thought her recovery was a bit quick for reality. And personally, I would have recommended she seek professional help. After all, even though she is able to pull herself out of this episode independently, there is still the possibility she may have a tendency to depression and experience it again in the future.

I appreciated that the stigma of having a family member with a mental health problem is addressed. Frankie calls up some of her mom's friends/acquaintances at one point, telling them that Mia's depressed, and they all interpret it in different ways — but all incorrectly. I'd say there's greater awareness of depression than there used to be, and it's more openly acknowledged, but I think the casual use of the word can cause confusion when the clinical definition is actually intended. I was surprised that Frankie and her family took so long to arrive at the conclusion that her mom is depressed, given that it's quite common these days. Generally speaking, the stigma is not as bad as it once was, and certainly not as negative as the attitudes towards some other mental disorders (such as schizophrenia or even bipolar disorder). That said, of course, it depends a lot on the individual and the community, and I can certainly understand Frankie's reluctance to admit her mother's depression to others, and even to herself at first.   

Frankie also exhibits some symptoms of depression — she's often tired and sad — but it's never stated that she herself is clinically depressed. I'd venture that perhaps what she has is dysthymia — its symptoms are not as extreme as major depression, but it involves a chronically low mood. Francesca herself at one point realizes that her lack of happiness has been going on for a while now, since before her mom's problems started.

Validity Score: How psychologically accurate was Saving Francesca?
Axis 5. Miscellaneous

I always like it when a beginning and end mirror each other, and it was no exception with Saving Francesca. It makes sense that since it started with her mother, it should end the same way.

Patient's statement:

I try to find music that belongs to me, but I realise that Mia's music has become mine. Mia's everything has consumed our lives and now Mia's nothing is consuming us as well.

After we play our music, we get ready for school, going through the motions, getting on with our lives.

And then the worst thing happens.

I get used to it.

Diagnosis: 4 shooting stars. Given my fondness for Thomas Mackee, I'm definitely looking forward to reading his story in The Piper's Son!

And before I sign off, I thought I'd share a few interesting facts about depression (taken from my university Abnormal Psychology textbook):

           Did You Know?
  • An individual with depression may sometimes exhibit anhedonia — a loss of pleasure/interest in daily activities — rather than a depressed mood
  • Completely different symptoms can accompany depression, depending on the type. For instance:
  • Psychosis (hallucinations and/or delusions) appears with some major depressive episodes
For more information on depression, go here.


  1. This is great post. I can't wait to read this book. It sounds interesting. I love these "prescriptive" reviews.

  2. I still haven't read a novel by Melina Marchetta even though everyone seems to praise her all the time! Thanks for the review of Saving Francesca and the analysis of the characters' behaviours in the novel!

  3. Saving Francesca is a book I've been wanting to read for a while - it's great to get your insight on how depression is portrayed in this book - you've definitely improved my knowledge of it! This is one I'll have to read soon - thanks for the analytical review!

  4. The fact that this book has Italian characters is a bonus haha. This and The Piper's Son are ones I really want to read.
    Frankie's dad sounds like a bit of a skeptic, people like that are what I think makes mental health such a tricky topic because theyre doubtful of the illness in the first place.

  5. Great review. I'm enjoying the format you're using for your Psychtember reviews. As for this book, I think I would enjoy it as I tend to like well-written character-driven books.

  6. I do legitimately LOVE this book (although Jellicoe Road IS better)... Melina Marchetta is pretty much my rock star. There were some bits about depression that weren't quite there, but I do like, that even though the spoiler happened and she started getting better, that it still took time, it wasn't a complete turn around. It was a bit quick, but it did also show there was still work to be done.

    But, loved the review. Very well done and I'm glad you still liked it!


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