The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta. Candlewick. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.
The Plot: Tom was aiming for oblivion and he got it. Along with ten stitches, and a concussion, and Francesca Spinelli, who used to be his friend, staring at him in the hospital room, staring not in judgment, but worse, with compassion and empathy. Five years ago, would anyone have guessed that the tight group of friends and family that surrounded Tom would become so fragmented and distant?
But that was before. Before a bomb killed his uncle, not leaving a body to be buried. Before his mother and younger sister left. Before his father started drinking too much. Before his father left. He would see his friends and it would be all tears and crying and Tom didn’t want that and so he dropped out of university, dropped his friends, found flatmates who didn’t care, and found that weed dulled his senses, and helped him to not remember. “And suddenly the room is spinning and when he hits the ground, headfirst off the that table, his life doesn’t flash before his eyes because Tom can’t remember his life. Can’t remember the last year, anyway.”
Now his flatmates have thrown him out and the only place he can go is his Aunt Georgie’s who has her own problems. At work, he’s forced into seeing those people who used to be his friends.
Slowly, Tom and Georgie discover that even though people and friendships and family can be broken, they can be mended.
The Good: The Piper’s Son left me breathless with heart pounding — it is a beautifully written love song about the flaws and strengths of family and the long journey of grief, about the love and laughter and disappointments that tie people together.
Marchetta weaves together two stories: Tom, just entering his twenties, floating through his life because what he loved, what he valued, is gone. What isn’t gone he threw away, better to leave it behind than risk the hurt of more loss. Georgie, twenty years older, is single and pregnant with mainly Tom for support. If Jellicoe Road was a puzzle, and Finnikin of the Rock a rough immersion into an unknown world, The Piper’s Son is an onion, something known but full of layers and secrets.
From the first pages, we know Tom’s hurts: “memory taunts him and he’s back at the cemetery where they’re burying his uncle in an empty grave” and “that was a world before dropping out of uni and parents splitting and two nights of everything with a girl whose face you can’t get out of your head and relationships falling apart and favorite uncles who used to call you Tom Thumb being blown to smithereens on their way to work on the other side of the world.” Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son…. Tom is hurt and hurts others. He admits he can be a bit of a bully. He gets angry. He can use words, use them cruelly. He can lash out. Tom is not a perfect young man, but he is real — he’s the boy you pass on the street.
For the next 300 pages, the layers of Tom’s life are explored, the past years, to feel the hurt as if it happened the day before. All of these events are safely in Tom’s past, if any loss can ever be safe or in the past, so Marchetta can concentrate on the heart of the matter — not what one does in the first hour, the first week, the first month, but how one lives the rest of their life. It’s also about how nothing happens in isolation. This is not just about Uncle Joe’s death. It is also about how Tom’s father, his hero, the “piper” who was the leader of his friends and family, proceeded to disintegrate and fall apart, not because Joe died (how easy an answer that would be!) but because we are all the sum of our lives, not one incident or day, and the “piper” was not as strong as everyone liked to believe No, needed to believe.
Sharon Hancock, Executive Director of School & Library Marketing for Candlewick, says “no one does families like Marchetta.” The Piper’s Son is about families, three generations, of love and hurt. Tom’s family is not idealized or romanticized, but it is real with its angers and hurt and also love and laughter and support. Healing from loss isn’t easy, and it can be selfish, and that selfishness can keep others at arms-length which just creates more rifts. We know the plot going in: what happened in Tom’s life over the last few years and that this book will be about him putting his life back together as he restores relationships with friends and family. While “will Tom get the girl back?” may be a bit of a page-turner, the real reason for turning the page is the deep, complex, familial relationship explored in these pages, including the family that is made from good friendships. For all their flaws and sorrows, a reader cannot help but fall in love with the entire Finch-Mackee clan and want to be part of that family.
Halfway through the book there is a fight between Georgie and her mother, one that is about “now” and “then” and Georgie reminds her mother of something said years ago, “That’s what you said to me and those words killed me more than anything.” Her mother replies, “Oh, you’re a cruel girl, Georgie, to remember that over everything else.” That, there, is the brilliance of Marchetta: in two sentences she shows a lifetime of hurt, and continuing hurt, and misunderstandings, in a family.
Georgie’s story– OK, I’ll admit that part of the reason I loved Georgie’s story is I’m an adult in the same age bracket as Georgie. Georgie’s story is a bit of a surprise, with a few more twists than Tom’s. Georgie is pregnant and single. Her brother Dominick, Tom’s father, her twin, had been the leader of a group of friends whose friendship goes back almost twenty years: Dom and his now estranged wife; Lucia, her husband, her sister; and other friends, Jonesy and Sam. Sam… Georgie’s ex. Georgie may be older than Tom, but hurts are hurts and age does not give wisdom in terms of how to handle love and betrayals and reunions and what does forgiveness really mean, anyway? What is the reality of day to day living it, rather than just saying it?
This is a book about love — so yes, there is healing and the hurt that comes from healing but it is also about love. Love between family, between friends, between lovers. So there is love and tenderness also; and there is laughter, from sibling jokes (an email is signed “love, the better-looking sibling“) and teasing to laugh out loud moments.
What age is The Piper’s Son for? Tom and his friends are in their early twenties, still at university (or having dropped out of university). Georgie and her friends are in their early forties. Is this is a young adult book or an adult book? Both. This is the perfect crossover book, to be bought and shelved in both the adult and teen fiction sections of the library and bookstore. The readers of young adult books are getting older, into their early twenties. For those still in their teens? The appeal is Tom and his story of being broken and put together. It doesn’t matter that he is 21 and not 15. Does a sixteen year old want to read about someone just a few years older, to see that the “real life” of post-high school is complex and messy? I say yes. I also say Georgie will be of interest, because she may sound older (and, well, she is) but for all her years she is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, handling both as wisely and poorly as any teen mother. I think, also, that teen readers are smart enough to want a book that shows adult lives as being as messy and full as their own.
Every now and then, someone complains about parents not being in young adult books. The Piper’s Son gives a whole extended family: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles. To make those adults real, and not caricatures of either good or evil, they come with their own stories, their own strengths and weaknesses and flaws. Does the inclusion of adults as something other than villain or saviour make that book one just of adults? I don’t think so. If anything, it tells the teen — your family is normal. It’s not just you. No family is “normal” or “typical.” Here, in The Piper’s Son, is the story of one family. Are teenagers interested in books about families, when they are at a time and place in their lives to begin to realize “not all families are like mine”? I say yes.
The Piper’s Son is a companion, a sequel of sorts, to Saving Francesca. Francesca, the main character in Saving Francesca, is one of Tom’s group of friends. Tom was a character in Saving Francesca, but not a main one. The Piper’s Son takes place about five years after Saving Francesca, and stands alone quite nicely. Because Tom hasn’t seen some of his friends for a year or so, he is getting re-introduced to them in a way, so the reader is also getting introduced to them. For those who haven’t read Saving Francesca, I find the covers and descriptions don’t do it justice. It’s a book about depression, really; about finding oneself; and about how one thinks they see things and how they really are can be two different things.
The Australian cover is quite different from the US one; I guess I should add that Tom is a musician and playing and singing music is one of those things that connected him to his family and friends, so, of course, it is one of the things he abandoned.