Round 2, Match 4: Saving Francesca vs. The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy


Judged by Melissa • Find her on Goodreads

I’m really glad these are the two books that advanced to the second round, because I liked them both and have much to say about them. It’s unfortunate that this doesn’t translate into ease of making a decision, huh?

First, the similarities. Both Saving Francesca and The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy are centered on friendship — coincidentally, both books have groups of four friends at the heart of the story. And while both books approach the topic differently, they end up saying many of the same things about friendship. Like how friendship can endure through betrayal. How friends all bring different things to the friendship. How no matter how different your friends are, the kind of support they give you is usually the same. And how sometimes friendship means giving up something of yourself.

At the beginning of Saving Francesca, Francesca doesn’t really have friends. She’s transferred to a new school (this is another fascinating similarity between the books, the importance of the school the characters attend) and left behind the group of girls she’s been friends with for years. The only girls she knows at St. Sebastian’s are ones she knew from her old school she hasn’t hung out with for years: the oddball Justine, the boy-crazy Siobhan, and activist Tara. They all make her uncomfortable because she thinks of them as weird, not like her, embarrassing. As the story develops, though, it becomes clear that Francesca’s old “friends” never really cared about her, that she was following them around because it was easier than standing out, and these three girls become her real friends as Francesca herself develops into someone who can be a true friend. The surprise in this book is Francesca, who in any other book would be a hanger-on, a yes-girl, whose mother actually has a point when she tells Francesca she’s not being the girl she truly is (though her mother goes about it in a terrible way). “Saving” Francesca means rescuing her from the state she’s put herself in, and while Francesca ultimately saves herself, her friends play a huge role in helping her do so.

The friendships in Poets are equally important, but play a different role in the story. One immediate difference is that where Francesca’s friendships are essentially newborn, Ethan has been friends with Luke, Jackson, and Elizabeth for many years, and it shows. Hattemer uses this to great advantage in telling a story about the nature of friendship — Ethan is relatively passive with regard to his friendships (I find him similar to Francesca in some ways) and over the course of the book he’s forced by circumstance to reevaluate his attachment to each of them. I like how those friendships evolve, though I wish those changes had been better defined, and one of them I find a little problematic. But even those small dissatisfactions don’t detract from the effect friendship has on the story, and Ethan changes as much as Francesca does, though in a completely different direction. In fact, I think the success of each story comes down to the transformation the main characters undergo. Francesca rediscovers the person she used to be; Ethan understands his friends better because he’s come to understand himself. And the “secondary” characters — a technicality; both groups of friends are as important as the protagonist-narrators — are interesting and funny and alive, drawing attention to how well depicted all the characters are. (I could also include the tertiary characters, Ethan’s triplet sisters and the boys who join Francesca’s group of friends — they all make the stories better, and there’s nothing extraneous in either.)

Now for the differences. Poets is a more structured book than Francesca; if I felt like being super pretentious, I’d call Francesca a more organic narrative. I like the way Ezra Pound’s Cantos provide a structure for the plot, particularly with the Contracantos poems as epigraphs for each chapter. Events are foreshadowed by what the students learn in English class, and while this is noticeable, it fits the rest of the book well enough that it’s not annoying. If I have any complaints about the story, it’s that there’s too much attention paid to how bad the reality show For Art’s Sake is. It’s not enough that it’s taking time out of classes and pitting students against each other; everyone involved must also be venal and/or corrupt, and the producers of the show have to be manipulative. It’s at that point that the structured nature of the book goes from being pleasant to obtrusive, and I think it was a mistake on the author’s part to add this “Reality TV is Bad” subplot to a story that didn’t need it.

Francesca is, as I said I wasn’t going to say, a more organic narrative; it moves from the moment in which Francesca’s mother won’t get out of bed back and forth through present and memory to the end, where the resolution of one set of problems sets the stage for what will happen to Francesca and her family next. I’m not going to say that’s an objectively better way to tell a story, because I think both these books are good examples of why different storytelling methods fit different kinds of stories. And I think it’s clear that Francesca wouldn’t be as good as it is if it were told with the same kind of structure Poets has. I loved the way Francesca’s character developed — how a memory episode would illuminate something in the present, how Francesca struggles to regain her identity even as her mother seems to have lost hers. I loved the sense of how other people saw Francesca even as the book is completely in her head. This happens particularly in her interactions with Will Trombal; there’s a scene where they’re confronting each other about the manifesto Tara forces Francesca to take to the administration, and Francesca becomes aware that this confident, arrogant boy is actually nervous around her, and you see that even though Francesca feels awkward and embarrassed and a little angry, Will sees her as confident and a little intimidating. It was fun to try to read the book both ways at once, seeing Francesca simultaneously as the lost young woman she is inside her head and the… actually, everyone seems to see her differently, and none more so than her three friends, who watched her turn into a person they disliked and yet were willing to give her a chance to become something more.

Ultimately, I have to make a choice, however, and everything I’ve just said leaves them evenly balanced. So I had to go with my gut. The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy is good, but it also feels like a first novel, with the author still feeling her way as a writer and a storyteller. Saving Francesca, a second novel, feels more confident and in some ways effortless. My attraction to Poets was on an intellectual level, but Saving Francesca really touched me. So I’m choosing Saving Francesca to advance to the third round.

Congratulations to Saving Francesca, which moves on to Round 3!


17 thoughts on “Round 2, Match 4: Saving Francesca vs. The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

  1. Poor Brandy! What a tough third round matchup for her!

    and I think it was a mistake on the author’s part to add this “Reality TV is Bad” subplot to a story that didn’t need it.

    Yeah, this was a sticking point for me, too. In general, I find reality tv to be an obvious, boring target, so I didn’t like seeing it here.

    but it also feels like a first novel, with the author still feeling her way as a writer and a storyteller

    I love this point! I think this was a large part of my reaction, too. Some elements felt just not quite THERE yet.

    1. I need to condense my reams and reams of points into an actual coherent argument as to why i disagree with the reality-tv-is-bad angle of the book, and in fact I see it tied so strongly into the narrative that I don’t really see how it could be removed and have the story still stand?

      And I need elaboration on why things felt not THERE yet! Why was it specifically a sign of a debut author, for example? I’m so curious about this!

      1. Why was it specifically a sign of a debut author, for example? I’m so curious about this!

        Well, I suppose it might not be, but I suppose I mean it as–there is room for improvement! Which is always true, but more polished, tighter writing should come more experience.

      2. I’m just saying that the reality-TV-is-bad part of the book was pushed way harder than it needed to be for the story to work. As to why it feels like a debut author…there was something about a lot of the details that felt self-conscious to me, as if Hattemer was thinking a little too hard about how her book needed to be shaped. It was something that really only came up because of the book I was comparing it to. As a debut novel, it’s miles beyond most authors’ first novels.

  2. Which of the friendships – or is it the friendship changes? – in Vigilante Poets did you find problematic? I’m so glad you mention Ethan’s triplet sisters, as they were hilarious but also really significant in showing how Ethan tended to downplay himself, weren’t they?

    1. My favorite disconnect with Ethan and the triplets was when he played Candyland with them, and described it as a regular game, and after they left the room Elizabeth said, Wow, you’re so nice to them, they love you – and Ethan had no idea what she was talking about. I thought it was such a great piece of narration.

      1. Yes! Me too. And it was significant because it helped the reader see the degree to which Ethan’s perception of himself needed to be examined. Like his saying he wasn’t talented, and then Elizabeth told him to stop saying that because it wasn’t true. I’d already had my doubts about whether he’d have been accepted to the school if he really didn’t have any type of artistic talent but no real way to evaluate. He did seem reliable about the extent of his musical abilities, though. 🙂

    2. The thing I found problematic had to do with Luke’s character and transformation, but I said more about this in my review (which I haven’t posted yet) because Goodreads lets me use spoilers. It’s related to whether Ethan is maybe too naïve a narrator, for the sake of the story. Cryptic, no?

      1. Oooooh please post I am so curious! I’ve been thinking about Luke, and how he’s presented through Ethan vs. Elizabeth, and if either of them are right, for a while now.

      2. It was cryptic, until I read your review! (I mean, it was the obvious friendship to be problematic, but there is another possibility, so just checking.) I just want to DROP EVERYTHING AND DISCUSS this with you and Beth – and anyone else who’s interested, of course – and can’t.

  3. I think, Melissa, that this is the first time I’ve read saying they disagree with Mia’s parenting, but I think I agree with you about that. In some ways Francesca needed to be pushed, and in some ways she needed to figure it out on her own – it’s not a coincidence that she only did when Mia wasn’t really there, right?

    1. Yes, exactly. I think Mia was right about Francesca, in terms of her not being true to herself, and I think that’s demonstrably true in the way Francesca changes. But Mia went about it the wrong way, and as you say, Francesca only figured it out when her mother was absent.

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