Reading Beautiful Broken Things made me really want to re-read A Quiet Kind of Thunder. I don’t know—this one was just so good that I was reminded of how much I enjoyed the other, which I think is a much more heartwarming story than this one. And that’s not to say that this one is bad, but there are moods for things. Parts of this story made me cry. Parts of it made my heart soar. I’m not sure I was in the best mood to read it. But I did, and Sara Barnard once again dazzled me with her ability to write characters steeped in empathy and compassion.
Trigger warning in this book for discussions of physical and verbal abuse, anxiety, suicide.
In Beautiful Broken Things, Caddy and Rosie have been best friends going on a decade, despite attending different schools. As they start Year Eleven, a new girl, Suzanne, at Rosie’s school threatens to disrupt this dyad. Wary of Suzanne at first, Caddy finds herself warming to Suzanne more so than anyone realized. As Caddy learns more about Suzanne’s past trauma and positions herself as the caring, understanding, shoulder-to-cry-on type of friend, she finds herself drawn deeper into Suzanne’s ongoing struggles. Even as Rosie pulls back and her parents advise caution, Caddy throws more and more of herself into helping Suzanne. Thus, Barnard poses the question: how far can we go, how much can we really do, for beautiful, broken people?
The way this book starts, it seems like it’s mostly going to be about Caddy’s jealousy of Suzanne, and Caddy having to adjust to Rosie and Suzanne becoming so close. Instead, Caddy and Suzanne develop this friendship almost separately from Rosie, and it’s really fascinating. I think it’s notable that, at the beginning of the book, Caddy resolves to get a proper boyfriend, lose her virginity, and experience a “significant life event”. I’m not going to go into spoilery details here, but I just want to point out that the focus of this book is not romance. In this way, Barnard reminds us that sometimes life takes us in unexpected directions, if we let it, and often where we end up is never where we imagined we would be.
There are multiple places in this book that brought me to tears, but there is one moment above all others that really got to me. It’s actually early on, page 100 of my edition:
After a silence, Sarah reached for the gift bag I realized I was still holding. “I’ll tell her you came by as soon as she wakes up.”
“I could come right back if she wants me to,” I heard myself say.
A smile spread across her face. “You’re very sweet.”
“I just want to make it better,” I said, feeling helpless.
Sarah didn’t reply. She didn’t need to. I knew what she was thinking, because I was thinking it too. It looped in my head as I walked back home.
(Emphasis original.) I actually welled up a little with tears just transcribing this passage. Doesn’t it just perfectly summarize how I’m sure all of us feel, at least once in a while? We go through our lives, together, yet alone. We try to help each other. But as every parent discovers when their child is hurting or every friend knows when their friend is on the outs—sometimes it just isn’t enough. It just won’t fix things. It’s not you; it’s not your fault. But it’s painful nonetheless.
Caddy isn’t perfect, obviously, and she makes plenty of mistakes, both when it comes to talking to Suzanne and to Rosie. Yet she is trying so hard! There are a few notable moments where Barnard really shows us the struggle as she tries to make the right decisions, like when she’s taking Suzanne home from a party and has to deliberate whether or not to interrupt Rosie. I’ve never been in that particular situation, but I can totally empathize with having to make such decisions and having to take that kind of initiative.
I really like the portrayal of the parents (and Sarah) here. Caddy’s mother sounds a little insufferable and quite judgmental when it comes to Suzanne, for sure—but they also make some good points when it comes to Caddy’s own wellbeing. I think that’s an interesting choice on Barnard’s part, showing us these parents who are trying to be supportive but are ultimately putting their own daughter first.
On a wider level, Beautiful Broken Things reminds of us how much work we still need to do when it comes to dealing with mental health in our society. We need to get better at talking about it with each other. We also need more supports in place, for teenagers and for adults, who need mental health assistance—and for those in caregiver/support roles who provide that kind of assistance because they are friends or family. Beautiful Broken Things is interesting because Suzanne isn’t the main character; Caddy is. Suzanne has her own story, sure, but this is the story of how Caddy reacts to Suzanne’s story intersecting her own.
This book is beautiful and enchanting and a little bit haunting. It is a convincing portrait of a group of teen girls, the issues they have to deal with, and the ways in which this affects their parents and support networks. I think I might prefer A Quiet Kind of Thunder simply because it is, to me, a much happier novel. But this book is definitely moving and important.