*Warning: Mild Spoilers*
I picked Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard up in the airport with the intention of reading it at the beach however it basically didn’t make it off of the plane (our flight was delayed too so that didn’t help either). Undeniably the writing was excellent and the depictions of teenage angst and coming of age on the seaside in Britain were beautiful, although I must confess that stuff is my poison anyway. Caddy is a wealthy private school girl whose main problem is her frizzy hair. She’s jealous of her sister’s mental health problems and her best friend’s dead baby sister because according to her, these things make you interesting and she desperately wants to be interesting. In fact she makes it her goal for the next year to lose her virginity, find a boyfriend and have a significant life event. When her best friend Rosie makes friends with new girl at school it seems that at least one of those things, the significant life event, is about to happen. Suzanne is beautiful but troubled and Caddy quickly finds herself wrapped up in her world.
Female friendship is a complicated, wonderful and mystifying and it’s all those things in this novel.
Caddy and Rosie are not particularly wonderful people for a lot of reasons, Caddy deliberately brings up a painful subject to get information out of Suzanne and Rosie refers to her as a slut. It’s not hard to believe that teenage girls might do bad things to each other or even that they might see horrible things such as abuse, mental health issues and death as glamorous and exciting. In my first year film course at university a student said he’d rather “live hard and die young” as the saying goes and the professor basically told him that that was a young and naive thing to say. She was right. That’s the difference between adults and teenagers. Teenagers are allowed to think and say silly things.
What did sort of annoy me about this book was the depictions of abuse. Now, I know that abuse can take many shapes and forms and there is no right or even typical way to respond to it. That said the abuse in this story didn’t ring true to me at all. Abusers act in different ways but if there’s one thing they have in common it’s that they keep trying to reel you back in. They might scream and kick and tell you they hate you but they’ll always try to get you to pay attention to them. Their behaviour always goes back to loving after they’ve done something horrible and it’s this back and forth that causes you to doubt yourself, that makes it hard to leave. The abuse in this book seems to miss this point.
Lastly, as I said, I have no problem with vapid or selfish female characters as these are traits that all of us embody from time to time and there’s no reason for female characters to be any better behaved than male characters. That said, even with unreliable narrators and flawed characters there tends to be a judgement, for lack of a better word, from the book. In Gone Girl,for instance we know that Amy and Nick are basically despicable in their treatment of each other even if we at times agree with and like them individually. That awareness was lacking for me in Beautiful Broken Things. All of that said, I really enjoyed reading this book and the writing is superb. If you’re headed to the beach or trapped inside because it’s raining all the time definitely give this a read.
As a personal aside: I hate the plot device of the threat of an “evil foster homes” as a reason for characters to run away or behave badly. My parents were foster parents, my aunt and uncle are foster parents, another aunt and uncle adopted a daughter and they are all wonderful people. I know that a.)this is a book and b.)there ARE indeed bad foster homes but this is the laziest, least nuanced, most overused plot device ever, in my opinion of course.