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.