[Inner Senshi Book Club] Review: Melina Marchetta – Looking for Alibrandi

The “Inner Senshi Book Club” is an online book club where five book lovers of different backgrounds and tastes across the world take turns at selecting and hosting a book each month. Individually, we are (in alphabetical order): Aimee, Angel, Meghan, Samantha Lin, and Samantha R. Together, we present you a whole range of books, complete with our responses to a rotating list of set questions.

A new book is selected on the 15th of each month, and our thoughts are posted roughly four to five weeks later. We hope you can join us in our reading shenanigans! (The book club derives its name from the five soldiers of love and justice from the Japanese manga and anime series, Sailor Moon. We are just as kickass, and if all goes to plan, twice as well-read.)

Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

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 no-nonsense 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.

Told with unmatched depth and humor, this novel — which swept the pool of Australian literary awards and became a major motion picture — is one to laugh through and cry with, to cherish and remember.

Though I’ve been hearing my friends talk about Australian young adult fiction (particularly Melina Marchetta’s work), this was my first time reading any, and I have to say that I’m both impressed and intrigued. I love how… refreshing it was to read a book culturally and historically vivid. I don’t know much about Italy or Australia, but I enjoyed the role Josie’s heritage and home played in her life. Melina Marchetta’s message about ethnicity and culture being enormous, unescapable parts of who you are truly touched me, and although the community and their incessant gossip drove me a little crazy, I love the way Marchetta illustrated it. Her brilliant descriptions and imagery — even the dialogue — brought Josie’s Australia to life.

I’ll admit that I found Looking for Alibrandi hard to read at times, mostly towards the beginning. For the first half of the novel, Josie’s voice bothered me, primarily because she seemed too… young and immature (even though she was meant to be a high school senior). The way she spoke to her mother and grandmother, some of the conversations she had with her friends… I was prepared to read about an obnoxious protagonist, who whined about her life constantly. It took me a while to really step into her head, but when I did and the story finally started taking hold, I found myself enjoying Josie’s narrative more and more.

Spoilers below!

Discussion Questions:

Samantha L wants you to consider:

How do the structural features (such as narrative mode and genre) shape the meaning of the text? If ineffective, how do you think this could be improved?

Looking for Alibrandi is told in the first person point-of-view. What I liked about this was that it allowed me to really get a feel for Josie’s perspective — her thoughts, her emotions, the way she viewed her surroundings and the way things affected her. It isn’t necessarily a reliable narrative, however, it isn’t meant to be. Though her observations aren’t always accurate, and sometimes there is a clear bias, Josie’s experiences in this novel allow her to grow. And, unlike many obstinate YA heroines (though Josie was certainly stubborn), I also loved the fact that she learned from her family and friends, and matured from her mistakes. The insight Josie’s narration provided into life in Australia for the families of Italian immigrants was an added bonus.

Samantha R is interested in knowing:

Did the book meet your expectations, or were you disappointed? Why or why not?

Though I knew from Angel and Sam R that Melina Marchetta was an amazing writer, I can’t say I expected anything before I picked up Looking for Alibrandi. I was curious because it was my first encounter with Australian young adult fiction, and I wondered how it would differ from American and Canadian YA fiction (which is mostly what I seem to read). At best, I thought I’d enjoy the book, but again, having no idea what to expect, I wasn’t really sure what “enjoying the book” would even mean. As I mentioned earlier, Melina Marchetta ended up blowing me away beyond my “expectations”. I didn’t expect this book to discuss culture, assimilation, immigration, or prejudice to the extent that it did, or that it would delve so deeply into ambition, stress, and suicide. It felt like Looking for Alibrandi took me away on an emotional rollercoaster that I never remembered boarding because the title hadn’t registered and I hadn’t read the summary before today.

Meghan is wondering:

Do you feel the cover reflected the story well? Why or why not?

I just saw the other cover for this novel seconds before writing this post, and I have to say, I think it fits both the atmosphere and Josie a lot better than my book’s cover. For one thing, the model looks like she can actually be Josie, with her curly Italian hair and her introspective gaze. I also think the colors (because they’re dull, brown, and yellowish hues) on that cover better reflect the story, which is very much about history — Josie’s, her mother’s, and her Nonna’s. My cover, however, doesn’t seem to grasp much about the actual novel. I like the brightness of the neon colors, but I don’t think they have any relevance (and though I’ve never been to Australia, I’m sure grass isn’t that kind of green there). I also think the crop and the placement of the model are fantastic, but with the face (and hair) off the cover, I can’t say that I’d identify this girl with Josie. Josie’s also supposed to have much darker skin, so the girl on the cover is missing a cultural identity, which is a huge theme in the novel.

Angel would like you to think about:

Was there a theme that jumped out strongly in the story? Did it fit the development of the characters?

Many themes jumped out at me in Looking for Alibrandi. Although culture and identity (which Sam specifically asks about in a later question) obviously resonated with me, the theme that really touched me was pressure and motivation in relation to academic ambition. I liked the message Melina Marchetta illustrated with Josie’s dreams and desires, contrasted by her friend, John Barton’s. It was interesting for me to see two similarly ambitious, top academic students deal with the pressure differently (based on their circumstances). Josie strove to be a barrister because it was something she actually wanted to do, and coming from a family that supported her and celebrated her accomplishments allowed her to handle the anxiety of classes, exams, and goals in a rather healthy way. John, on the other hand, felt pressured to constantly win or score high academically by his family and a history of successful Bartons, to the extent that he lost himself. He felt his spirit was stifled, and the only way he could think to free himself was to die. His story made me really feel for his friends and family, and the people who knew him, but I did like that he was able to help Josie view her life, the positive and the negative, more clearly. (I also thought the suicide and the aftermath was handled well, and I liked how it allowed Josie to connect with people she never thought she could before, making her realize that she was guilty of stereotyping just as much as the Australians who looked badly upon her were.)

My question for you is:

How well does the setting contribute to the story? (Would a different setting have affected the book significantly?)

A different setting would have definitely altered this novel significantly. I don’t know much about Australia (despite the fact that Sammy and Sam are both from there), but I thought Marchetta’s descriptions of the environment (socially, culturally, physically, and even historically) really helped me place Josie’s story and her world. I can’t imagine the setting taking place anywhere else because the story would lose a gigantic part of itself if it didn’t have the Italian immigration background or the clash between Italians (or other Europeans) and Australians and the prejudice and misconceptions surrounding them (on both sides). (I also really liked how the dialogue in this book, especially the slang, helped create the atmosphere. Josie and her friends said a lot of phrases and words I’d never heard, but it felt so… Australian.)

This month’s host, Samantha R, has a bonus question:

Family, culture, and identity all play a large role in Looking for Alibrandi. How do you feel Marchetta dealt with these issues?

Brilliantly. I loved the way Melina Marchetta wove all three of these themes together. Josie’s family history, the patriarchal rules of her ancestors, the way her grandfather treated her mother and grandmother, the way Italians did things and the way Australians did things… All of these things helped shape the person Josie was and the person Josie would become. I also liked how these things affected Josie’s family dynamic. It was interesting for me to read about a society that cared so much about a person’s blood relationship to their parents. I know some cultures place enormous significance on blood relationships and it’s a scandal for a child to be born out-of-wedlock, and I know my parents grew up in that sort of society as well, so I can comprehend the situation. But it still felt bizarre to me, as a person who has lived in New York nearly her entire life and never ran into such inquiries or discrimination (for those reasons). I could, however, better relate to Josie’s feelings of never truly belonging to Australia or Italy. I was born in Pakistan, and I’ve lived in New York since I was a little younger than three. My English is very American, and my Urdu is kind of terrible (and always requires the addition of English words because I can’t fully express myself in that language), even though it’s the language I use to communicate with my parents. I can’t understand Hindi music and while I can get a gist of the dialogue for Hindi or Urdu films, I can’t really watch them without subtitles (so much of them go over my head). But culturally, even though it’s hard to explain, my appearance, mannerisms, my beliefs, and significant parts of my personality are very Pakistani. It’s a strange feeling belonging to more than one society or culture, and it’s jarring at times to try to fit in with either of them, especially if they’re different and difficult to mesh. I like that Looking for Alibrandi explored this and tried to resolve Josie’s feelings of confusion and detachment. It’s difficult to figure out who you are, and it’s harder when you have history, culture, family, and your community guiding you in various directions.

Check out the Inner Senshi’s thoughts on their individual posts:

Sammy/Sailor Moon @ All Things Literary (Coming soon!)
Meg/Sailor Mercury @ Coffee and Wizards
Samantha R/Sailor Mars @ As Read By An Aspiring Receptionist
Angel/Sailor Venus @ Mermaid Vision Books

If you’ve read Looking for Alibrandi, please feel free to share your thoughts! And don’t forget to join the Inner Senshi Book Club this month as we read Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood!

Sailor Jupiter



4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: [ISBC-review] Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta | coffeeandwizards
  2. megtao
    Jul 27, 2012 @ 09:05:55

    I had the same reaction as you to the Australian slang. The first time the term “crawling” was used I was really confused, but I loved that terms like that were used because it added a flavour and texture to the novel that I think often gets washed out in the Americanization of novels (i.e. sorceror’s stone vs philosopher’s stone).

    I was surprised when you said you found Josie whiny and didn’t like how she spoke with her mother because I didn’t really have a reaction to that. In fact, I was really impressed with the relationship between Josie and her mother. As much as Josie argued with her mother, I saw that as a healthy thing, and she always apologized when she felt she’d gone too far. I think it’s really interesting how reading a book is such an individual experience that even the smallest of things can be seen in different ways.


  3. Trackback: [ISBC] June 2012: Looking for Alibrandi, Melina Marchetta « As Read By An Aspiring Receptionist
  4. Samantha Lin
    Aug 08, 2012 @ 12:16:23

    I love how you thought the novel was “refreshing”, particularly since it was your first foray into Australian YA. Funnily enough, I found the novel a strange combination of refreshing and familiar–maybe because it was refreshing to read something so familiar and Australian!


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