I use fiction as a way to interpret my life and survive my hurts
I was going to try to get to that, like, eventually. I was going to make a bunch of big grand allusions and metaphors and then, ta-dah, I would reveal it all cryptic-like. Ooooh, everyone would marvel I see what she did there! So clever! But really, what’s the point? Let’s just go ahead and say it: I use fiction as a way to see myself and my life. I think the best fiction not only does that, not only helps us see ourselves, but helps us see beyond that, see more than ourselves.
And this is maybe what I love the most: when I connect with a piece of fiction I connect with the world.
I was reading Melina Marchetta’s new novel The Piper’s Son in a restaurant and when the waitress came over to my table to ask if I needed a refill she was startled when I looked up and had tears rolling down my face. I wanted to tell her, “Hey, it’s OK, don’t worry, I’m just here with my friend Tom and he’s going through a hard time and I really relate and -”
Because Tom Mackee, the main character in The Piper’s Son feels like a friend to me. More than a friend, he is so real to me as a character that he is not a character any more – he’s just a guy I know.
Except now he doesn’t know what kind of family they are. What word would define them? What would they call his family in the textbooks? Broken? He comes from a broken home. The Mackees can’t be put back together again. There are too many pieces of them missing.
To be succinct: The Piper’s Son is a story about a family dealing with grief. That’s that. Someone died unexpectedly and it tore a hole in their family and no one quite knows how to recover. And, of course, anyone reading that sentence knows how that might sound simple but real grief is the opposite of simple and thus so is this text. Real grief sneaks up on you, grabs you around the throat when you’re least expecting it, real grief finds you on sunny days in the middle of joy, real grief rearranges everything good in your life and makes you feel stranded.
Tom’s uncle died and his close-knit family couldn’t quite bear the strain of it. His parents became estranged, his father fell into a bottle, and his extended family, including his aunt Georgie, came unglued too. Where the story gets particularly interesting, especially for teen readers, is that Tom himself unravels everything good in his life.
Tom had a great group of friends, a band he played with, a girl he was absolutely crazy about and finally going to be with. But grief, bone deep grief, has pulled Tom away from all that. (Tom doesn’t know it but his grief, as grief sometimes does, has made him think he’s not worthy of anything good, anything joyful. Marchetta is such a skillful writer that she never expressly states this, she just lets the reader feel how wrong Tom is – feel that and want, so madly, for him to realize how wrong he is.) He shuts out his friends, quits the band, drives away the girl. He is alone in a sea of hurt and loss and anger because, of course, this is a book smart enough to know that grief makes you so damn angry sometimes.
This is a book about grief, yes, and how grief blows your life apart. But this is also a book about how you pick up the pieces from that, how the tidal wave of grief can knock you over but how we find our way back to life again. At the end of the book one of the characters realizes “I need happiness. I deserve it.” This seemingly simple statement is, instead, a profound declaration
We begin with everything in Tom’s life in shambles. The Piper’s Son isn’t the story about how all of this fixes itself and Tom stops feeling bad and he gets the girl. It is the story of how life goes on, about how your best friends will always come for you and never give up on you, about how grief doesn’t stop but it can lessen enough to let joy in, about how when you love the right girl and she loves you back, well, that can get you through a lot of shit.
I feel like … no matter what I do, I’m not doing this story justice. Because besides all these ~BIG PLOT POINTS WITH EMOTIONAL LESSONS~ this is just a book that grabs you and doesn’t let go. It’s funny (Tom is sarcastic and smart and mean and charming too) and real and romantic and passionate. People in this book care so much and Marchetta makes you care too. There’s not a single wasted line in this book, it’s all brilliantly constructed, from the metaphor of Tom losing his interest in creating music to the very subtle and strongly drawn story about fathers and sons that runs through the entire narrative. Tom’s father, a gregarious fellow everyone loved, lost himself in his grief and we learn the story of his family, how his father went off to fight in Vietnam and never came home and he was raised by his father’s best friend, the man who became his step-father. All of this becomes part of Tom’s family legend, the grandfather whose body never made it back from war, and it haunts Tom’s relationship with his father.
This is very much a story about family – about how our families shape us and hold us up and even, sometimes, let us down when we think we can’t bear it. Tom is taken in by his aunt Georgie, who narrates some parts of the book. I know there might be some concern that teen readers won’t find themselves as interested in Georgie’s story as Tom’s, but I think that the two are inseparable. It’s important to Marchetta’s larger story about grief to show how it’s an equal opportunity monster: adults, like Georgie, don’t have magical coping skills that make them more able to handle bad things. And not just grief, Marchetta uses this Georgie’s story to let teens in on the great secret. We adults don’t have all the answers, you know. We fuck up too. This is an important point for teens and it’s resonant – we’re all figuring this out, we’re all doing the best we can and making mistakes and trying to go on with it.
This is also a love story. A big, romantic, heart-stopping love story. First, it’s a love story between a group of friends who won’t give up on each other, even when things are hard, a group of friends who stick together. (I think teens are going to love that element.) But it’s also the love story of Tom and Tara Finke, the girl he pushed away as he slipped into sorrow, the girl he can’t forget. Tom and Tara are inexorably drawn to each other, through the hurts, through the miles that now separate them. They reconnect through electronic communications and their stumbling, often acerbic reconnection is awkward and sharp and sweet all at once. Tom loved Tara Finke but even before grief laid him low he was afraid of his feelings for her – because they were BIG and scary and new. Now he has to decide what to do with all those feelings, if it’s too late to face up to what they mean to him, to what she means to him. And Tara, because she is a fully-realized character all on her own, has to see if she can find a way to forgive how badly Tom has hurt her. Of course, I don’t want to spoil it but I will say the scene between the two of them in the airport is one of the most breathtakingly true and heartachingly awesome things I’ve simply ever read.
Who is the target audience for this book? Tom and his friends are high school graduates, in their early 20s. Some parts of the story are narrated by 42 year old Georgie. Adults could easily read (and enjoy) this title. So is this a YA book? Absolutely, without a doubt. This is a story with lots of teen appeal: a story about figuring out your parents aren’t perfect but you can love them anyway, a story about friends that like you even when they see the worst in you, a story about how being an adult doesn’t mean you have all the answers, it just means you get to get an equal chance at trying to figure it all out. This is a quintessential YA novel, an exemplary example of what the genre can do when it really tries.
The Piper’s Son is a highly recommended first purchase for all public and high school libraries. You should go purchase one for yourself today. And if your library doesn’t have a copy, request they buy one.
Maybe strangers enter your heart first and then you spend the rest of your life searching for them.
Tom Mackee was a stranger to me at first. But by the end of the book, I’d found him and, better still – he’d found me. He connected me to the world, he let me cry out some deep hurts, and he reminded me that sadness isn’t the end of the story. The best fiction shows you the truth of the world and The Piper’s Son is that kind of story.
[must read: Liz’s review of The Piper’s Son.
Reviewed from a copy generously provided by the publisher]