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Looking for Alibrandi

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by Melina Marchetta

 

Looking for Alibrandi won

 

            The Children's Book of the Year Award (Children's Book Council of Australia), 1993

            The Bilby Award (Queensland's children's choice awards, from Children's Book Council of Australia, Queensland Branch), 2000.  "Bilby" stands for "Books I Love Best Yearly."

            In Melina Marchetta's Looking for Alibrandi, Josephine Alibrandi describes herself as reaching "the seventeen that Janis Ian sang about where one learns the truth."  Josie does, indeed, learn truth - at least a little.  Josie makes the acquaintance of her previously unknown father.  She learns a terrible family secret that has negatively impacted three generations of Alibrandi women.  And Josie learns truths about fitting in - at school; with family and her Italian heritage; with friends, boyfriend and father; and with Australian society.

            Looking for Alibrandi indirectly poses questions that most of us ask at least once in our lives:  Who am I? Where am I going and how do I get there?  These questions give the book its universal appeal, although Josie's answers are particular to her own personal circumstances.

            Josie's circumstances are this:  She received a "six-year English scholarship" to St. Martha's school - a scholarship that "backfired" because Josie doesn't relate to most of the students (6).  They are all preparing for end-of-year exams that they must pass to earn the HSC, the  "Higher School Certificate (4)."  It's a stressful time.

Much of the family tension Josie feels stems from her Italian heritage.  Josie and her mother argue a great deal, and Josie's mother and grandmother (Nonna) are very strict:

 

They stifle me with ridiculous rules and regulations they have brought with them from Europe . . . There's always something that shouldn't be said or done.  There are always jobs I have to learn because all good Italian girls know how to do them, and one day I'll need them to look after my chauvinistic husband.  There's always someone I have to respect. (38)

 

Josie has two male friends - John Barton, whose father, a Member of Parliament, pressures John to perform academically; and Jacob Coote, a public-school student who becomes Josie's first boyfriend.

A fairly typical teenager, Josie is egocentric.  Her relationship with John, however, forces her to look outside herself, first out of concern for John's "mood swing [46]" and later, in sorrow.  John has wealth and social advantages but cannot handle the pressure and expectations "to be the best (43)." Tragically, he takes his own life.  The painful lesson Josie learns is that John died "to achieve his [emancipation], while Josie is "living to achieve" hers (229).

            Josie's relationship with working-class Jacob forces her to examine her growing sexuality.  She decides, despite Jacob's assertion that "women don't have to be virgins anymore," that she wants to retain control over her virginity.  She wants "to be so sure when it happens" and not say that "it didn't mean a thing or that it was done in [her] school uniform." (202)

Much of the social tension Josie feels also stems from her Italian heritage.  Josie lives in Glebe, a suburb of Sydney, but she also lives in a cultural no-man's land; because her mother was born in Australia, their Italian relatives don't quite consider them to be Italian.  Because Josie's grandparents were born in Italy, they aren't completely Australian, either (6-7).

Josie and her cousin laughingly characterize the annual family tomato-canning day as "National Wog Day (162)."  But it is a different matter altogether when her fellow students - whom Josie calls "blond yuppies or European trendies (17)" - characterize Josie as ethnic, a "wog (78)."  Reacting impulsively to a recurrence of racial slurs, Josie hits a classmate with a book she happens to have in her hand, breaking the other girl's nose.

At first neither Josie nor her father, Michael Andretti, want to become acquainted.  When Josie appeals for her barrister father's aid after the nose-breaking incident, the two are increasingly drawn together.  Their relationship proceeds tentatively at first, but in the end Michael asks Josie if he may officially adopt her.  Josie's maturing attitudes and understanding of complex relationships allow her to opt for a name change (to Andretti) but no adoption.

Josie's life has also been shaped by a different cultural stigma:  Christina, Josie's mother, was an unwed mother and Josie, therefore, is illegitimate.  As a child, Josie's illegitimacy put a damper on her relations with friends, as "no one was allowed to come and stay at [Josie's] house (7)."

Josie's puzzlement over this ostracizing turns into anger when she learns a painful secret:  A generation before, Nonna had an illicit love affair, resulting in the birth of Josie's mother.  Josie feels betrayed by Nonna's hypocritical behavior - chastising Christina for becoming pregnant out of wedlock while knowing that, because of her own misdeed, Christina was not truly an Alibrandi.

Josie's culture - Italian and Australian - form the warp and weft of the fabric of her life as well as the fabric of this book.  We see the Italian culture in rules (above) and customs ("a grandmother dressed in black for forty years [6]; "tablecloths and crocheted doilies" for Easter, for her "hope chest" [70]); foods and activities (spaghetti on tomato day); and language (paese; zingara [71]).  It is surprising, however, that although we know Josie understands (33) and speaks Italian (winning the Italian award [230]), we never "hear" her doing so in the book, other than with family names. 

Josie's Australian cultural heritage is shown in actvities ("Have a Say Day [24]"); language ("barrister [81]"); and aspects of school ("Year 12 [24]").  Adams (1999)[i] approves the retention of these Australian cultural markers, saying that this allows "both characters and setting to retain their distinct personalities--and giving due credit to its young adult audience."

In Janis Ian's song[ii], "I learned the truth at seventeen/That love was meant for beauty queens . . . Who married young and then retired."  Ian's truth may have been the truth that Josie thought she would learn, but this is not the truth she got.  Instead, Josie finds a compassionate father, an appreciation for the strong women in her life, a balance between her dual heritages, and hope for the future.



[i] Adams, Lauren. 1999. Review of Looking for Alibrandi, by Melina Marchetta. Horn Book Magazine 75 (3).

[ii] See "Janis Ian Quotes" at BrainyQuote, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/janisian219150.html.

 

 

 

Marchetta, Melina. 1999. Looking for Alibrandi. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN 0-531-30142-7

 

This review was written for a graduate class in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

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