Counter Review: Young Adult: Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

Beautiful Broken Things cover

I was brave
She was reckless
We were trouble

Best friends Caddy and Rosie are inseparable. Their differences have brought them closer, but as she turns sixteen Caddy begins to wish she could be a bit more like Rosie – confident, funny and interesting. Then Suzanne comes into their lives: beautiful, damaged, exciting and mysterious, and things get a whole lot more complicated. As Suzanne’s past is revealed and her present begins to unravel, Caddy begins to see how much fun a little trouble can be. But the course of both friendship and recovery is rougher than either girl realizes, and Caddy is about to learn that downward spirals have a momentum of their own.

Title: Beautiful Broken Things(Fragile Like Us[US])
Author: Sara Barnard
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books (UK) / Simon Pulse
Publication Date: February 25th 2016 / July 18th 2017
Format: Ebook
Length: 322 pages
ISBN-10: 150980353X
ISBN-13: 9781509803538

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: MPDG?, friendship, female friendship, mental illness
POV: First person
Tense: Past tense

Why I Read It: I’ve been struggling to find good YA to read, so I just looked at the Goodreads lists for all YA published in 2016/2017 and got a few that looked interest based on synopsis and reviews.  This was one of them.  I tend to think negative reviews give me more info about whether I’ll like a book than positive ones, and the negative reviews here made this seem interesting.  Plus I have a hard time finding YA to read set outside the US, so…  yeah.

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Review Notes:  Spoiler warnings?  I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, but there might be a few minor things from the beginning of the book.  No major spoilers, though.

Review:  I’ve called this a “counter-review” for a few reasons.  Not because I think people shouldn’t be allowed differing opinions, but because I think one side of the argument hasn’t been heard as loudly as it deserves.  And because reviews are personal opinion, so what works for one reader might not work for another.

One of the prime criticisms of the book is that the main character is unlikeable.  Selfish, self-centered, jealous, and privileged.  Now, it seems to be that last adjective that drives so many people crazy about our MC Caddy.  After all, she complains she’s never had anything bad happen to her.  And nothing exciting or a combination thereof, either.  And to this, I say, have y’all met a teenager before?  We’re y’all ever teenagers?  ‘Cause this ain’t some odd, gross quirk.  All teenagers, and most people really, are selfish, and self-centered, and get jealous.  And so so many teens think they are dull and boring.

But, you say, why does she envy the tragedies of her friends and family?  Again, have y’all met teenagers?  Have you read YA with its dark and brooding and tragic love interests?  Tragedy is gossip, it is mystery, it can be all the things that teenagers find interesting in others.  Caddy is damn right the bad things that happened to her friend and her sister make them more interesting.  Now, it might be privileged for her to wish something had happened to her instead; her friend and her sister might wish they’d lived a normal and boring life.  But the grass is always greener on the other side exactly because all sides suck.  Not equally, and not in the same way, but Caddy’s feelings and behavior are realistic.  Teens (and adults and kids) feel these things.  They are not rare and do not make Caddy a horrible person.  I’m not saying they aren’t flaws.

And the same goes for her complaints about her parents and her life with them.  Caddy is very lucky in many ways, but that doesn’t mean she’s not allowed to have her own problems that matter to her.

Now, Caddy takes these idle thoughts and puts them into practice.  She makes a mistake.  A big one.  But again, not uncommon.  She hurts someone with her petty jealousy.  But so have most people.

I liked that Barnard was willing to portray the characters realistically, even in their worst moments, because that’s what makes them interesting as characters.  I liked that the book almost entirely left out romance.  Romance and the pursuit of romance are going to be serious focuses for many teenagers.  But they aren’t all there is.  The fact that the books focuses on female friendship was one of the things that most recommended it to me.  And that Barnard was willing to show that friendship can be a complex relationship with good and bad intentions and good and bad outcomes is something you don’t see in a lot of YA.  Sure, you see frenemies and toxic, abusive friendships.  But to me, this wasn’t that.  It was toxic, but it was also earnest, and it wasn’t based on total lack of other choices for the characters becoming friends.

Caddy’s friendship with Suzanne was based on misunderstandings of who Suzanne really was, what friendship is supposed to achieve, and what the proper way to help someone is.  And those are issues that teenagers everywhere face every day.  The answers aren’t always easy to find.  Teenagers often don’t know them.  Adults don’t know them.

And comparing herself to her friends is also a reality of many teenagers, especially with social media allowing us to curate our lives and present a false front even to people who may feel close to us.  When you’re trying to figure out who you are, trying to figure out how you fit together with others, shorthand and labels are a convenient and tempting way to approach the issue.  The girl whose sister died.  The bipolar kid.  Those are simplistic, but humans are all about simplifying.  Something, even something tragic, is better than nothing.  That’s why you get cliques, though they’re over-played in the media.  That’s why people so jealously guard their obscure fandoms and interests from the mainstream.  I’m not saying that’s the right response or the best response, and neither is this book.  In fact, I’d argue the books exposes those reactions, Caddy’s reactions, as flawed approaches that one should try to avoid.

And, getting to the heart of what drives the plot, the book’s depiction of mental illness and how it scares you into hiding from people, even from friends and family, and how people try to pass the blame to the ill person was a major positive for me.  You think you understand people, but there’s a good chance that you don’t.  Just like Caddy misunderstood the impact of the bad things that happened to those around her, leaving her envious, she misunderstood the motivations for her two friends’ actions, leading her into making poor choices.

In one scene(this is not a major spoiler), she leaves her friend at a party alone with a guy to care for another friend.  There’s been a lot of pushback in reviews about this scene, but personally, I thought it was very well done.  Caddy thought she understood what her friend wanted, and because she didn’t, she made a mistake that damaged their friendship.  People make mistakes like this all the time.  It’s what’s used to cause tension in many romantic relationships or romantic pursuits, where one side thinks they know what the other wants, but they don’t.  Characters in YA novels get held to a very high standard for proper behavior.  Especially female characters.

And I think that’s valuable, both for creating good stories, and for any moral imperative folks might think YA books should support.  But sometimes, the standard is too high, and just like in real life, people pick and choose based on their subjective personal feelings whether to hold a character to account.  Have you as a reader or a person ever seen a guy criticized for leaving a friend alone at a party with a girl?  Maybe.  But it’s pretty uncommon in my experience.  And perhaps it shouldn’t be.

Neither Caddy nor the novel surrounding her are perfect.  But just as Caddy believes no one will be interested in her if her life is perfect and grief-less, neither is a novel where nothing bad happens and the character never makes any mistakes likely to be popular with readers.  We treat real-life human lives as narratives as much as we do fictional ones, and if there’s one thing Caddy gets perfectly right in this book, it’s understanding that, even if subconsciously, even if she doesn’t necessarily draw the best conclusions from that premise.

You can probably guess from the jacket copy and the reveiws, and the existence of a trade published novel, that Caddy gets her significant life event, and that it stems from her flawed way of inserting herself into the world.  Whether or not it makes her cool and interesting, or teaches her any valuable lessons is something you’ll have to find out from actually reading this book.

There’s nothing spectacularly original or thrilling about the individual pieces Sara Barnard has put together to build this book.  But the way she has put them together is something you don’t get to see too often in YA, even if the execution is lacking in a few places.  (Particularly, the way the supporting characters had drives of their own rather than being props for the MC to explore her world.)  And the ending–though it gave a bit at the end, blunting the force of the lesson for the MC–was exactly the sort of bittersweetness I enjoy from a good contempary YA.

Conclusion: 77/100 (A strong showing, though not without flaws)
Premise: 7/10 (Seen it before, but not this well-explored)
Plot: 7/10 (Nothing new, but supports some really interesting themes)
Setting: 8/10 (Well-described)
Main Character: 8/10 (Can be a tad annoying, but interesting complex)
Friendship: 8/10 (Shows a contemp novel can stand without a romance b-plot)
Mental Illness: 8/10 (Well-explored)
Supporting Characters: 8/10 (Well-portrayed, clearly had their own agendas)
Writing: 7/10 (Competent)
Themes: 8/10 (Well-developed)
Resolution: 8/10 (Not perfect, but striking)

Buy Or Borrow:  If you’re worried that Caddy isn’t the kind of flawed character that really interests you, you should probably borrow a copy of Beautiful Broken Things;  But if you’re curious to find out why exactly I differ so strongly from the many critical reviews of the book and its main character, I think it’s worth your money to purchase a copy.

Similar Books:

N/A

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
The Guardian –  Childrens’ Books
The Bibliomaniac
Queen of Contemporary
Happy Indulgence Books
Debbish.com
The Books Are Everywhere

Buy Links:
Amazon (US)
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
nook

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3 thoughts on “Counter Review: Young Adult: Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

    • The goal of a book review is to help readers decide whether they might enjoy a book. I always tag several other reviews so that a reader can get a varied perspective, because I am not most readers.

      I choose major industry publication reviews and the Goodreads page, and then I run through the top 5-10 pages of google in order to find reviews by readers or bookbloggers I think say something a reader might find useful. I try to keep it divided evenly between people who I agree with and people who I disagree with.

      What I thought would be particularly useful for readers in your review was you stance on Caddy, which was at odds with what a lot of the popular Goodreads reviewers were saying about her and her behavior in the book. The contrast between your review and many of the ones from people I’m more familiar with in the YA book review community is one of the things that made me feel like I wasn’t totally clueless about liking this book more than the reviews suggested I would.

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