Judged by Brandy • Find her on Goodreads
A couple of years ago, my sister sent me an email that said this: “I know this will be hard for you, but I need you to send me a list of your 10 most favorite books. I’m doing a thing.” It surprisingly turned out to not be that hard. This? This is hard. Why? Both of these books were on that list. To say that judging this particular battle is difficult for me is a massive understatement.
I will start with the book I read first, The Perilous Gard. I love some well-written historical fiction. I love fairy tale retellings and Tam Lin is a particular weakness of mine (right up there with “Beauty and the Beast” and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” – you will notice some similarities). I did an entire week of Tam Lin retellings leading up to Halloween one year and saved this reread for last so it wouldn’t overshadow the ones I had already read. It remains my favorite. I love independent, confident, intellectual heroines and the banter that ensues when they are placed in proximity to equally intellectual, confident, and slightly arrogant heroes. Oh how I love this book, let me count the ways.
Kate is one of my all-time favorite heroines. There is so much to love about her steadfast calm and deep thinking mind. She sees nuance and therefore really sees people. It’s fascinating that the only time that she gets people muddled is when she is seeing them in relation to her due to her own ingrained insecurities. And that’s the thing I love most about her. She has so many positive traits, but is still victim to the petty jealousies, insecurities, and lack of confidence that afflict anyone. It makes her so very real.
Then there is Christopher. I don’t know how a person can read this book and not fall for Christopher. He is so dedicated to his family. His martyrdom isn’t something he takes on lightly. He doesn’t walk into the arms of the Folk with any nonsensical overwrought delusions of heroism. He owes Geoffrey. He owes Cecily. That’s all that matters to him. He is far more likeable and sympathetic than any other Tam Lin hero.
Underneath the romance and the fairy tale and the history, though, this is really a story about relationships. That is its heart. They are manifested in so many different ways, from the complicated notions of family and how we feel toward them to the wary respect of two strong opposing leaders that Kate and the Lady show. There is depth and richness to all of them, and that for me is what MAKES this story.
Spoilers in this paragraph. BEWARE!
I also love this book for the way it twists the Tam Lin tale. In the original ballad, the hero and heroine have a connection that is purely physical, firmed in the heroine’s pregnancy with the hero’s child. Therefore her breaking of the curse requires a physical intervention. In The Perilous Gard , Kate and Christopher are never allowed to touch once they are in the underground world of the Folk. They can’t even see each other. Their bond is forged through conversation and truly knowing one another. And so , of course, it is through that Kate is able to save Christopher. It is such a beautiful way of turning the original tale into something so much more and so much better.
Saving Francesca was my gateway book to contemporary realistic YA. I avoided reading the genre for quite some time. I read MG books because that’s the grade levels I taught. (And I love it.) I read adult books. I started reading YA Fantasy because it appealed to me more than adult Fantasy, and I really love Fantasy. But there was no need in my life for realistic contemporary fiction of any sort. Or so I thought. (How happy I am those days are behind me.) Our fearless leader here kept harassing me to read Jellicoe Road, as did many other friends. I have this nasty habit of only doing half of what people tell me to do – if I do it at all – so I read Saving Francesca instead. And just absolutely fell in love with Francesca’s voice and every single character in the book.
A few years ago, a friend of mine did a blog series all about Melina Marchetta’s work and I contributed a guest post. I chose to write about Saving Francesca because this book often saves a really bad day for me. I’ve reread it so often. There are so many positive aspects of the story, and the way Marchetta brought it all together and in so few pages makes this a cut above the rest for me.
Saving Francesca is also, at its core, a book about relationships of all sorts. The messiness of friendships. The complicated tangle of family history and connection. The confusion of romance. I love all of it. The four girls form one of my absolute favorite literary female friendships of all time. They are all so different, and yet they get each other and support each other in every way possible. Their interactions with Tom and Jimmy are also delightful. They remind me of real boys, both the ones I hung out with in high school and the ones I teach. There is a genuineness to all the characters in this book that surpasses what we usually get in YA realistic fiction.
Then there is Will, who is so charmingly nerdy and clueless I can’t help but love him.
The best part of the book for me, though, lies in the complicated relationship Francesca has with both her parents. She wants to escape her mother’s expectations, but she doesn’t know how to be Francesca without them. How can you be a petulant rebellious teen when your whole reason for rebelling can’t get out of bed? Then there is the way Francesca foists all her anger and fear and uncertainty over it all onto her father. There is a temptation for the reader to do the same, but I have a lot of sympathy for her dad. The resolution between them toward the end is my absolute favorite scene in the entire book. His “Just tell me where you are” and the tone of voice I imagine went with it makes me cry every single time.
What I have is two excellent books that are comfort rereads for me. Both favorites. And yet I have to choose one, because for some reason I thought doing this again would be fun. (It is. Really.)
And choosing between them is hard, but I actually can do it. Because it is basically everything I look for and adore in a book – fairy tales, history, strong women of more than one type, true love, excellent banter, and a journey of self discovery. Because it is everything my mind loves to feed on, a full course gourmet meal with a dark chocolate dessert for my brain, I pick The Perilous Gard.