Last year, Sara Barnard dazzled me with Beautiful Broken Things. Now, thanks to NetGalley and Pan MacMillan, I got my digital hands on an eARC for the sequel: Fierce Fragile Hearts is narrated by Suzanne and tells the story of what happens to her months after the conclusion of Beautiful Broken Things. This book is just as good, if not better than, the first one. Every time I didn’t think it could get any better, any time I thought Barnard had made me care the maximum I could possibly care … I turned the page and there was something new to cry about.
Suzanne has turned 18 and will officially leave care to become an independent adult, yikes! After time in a group home and group therapy, she is more … together. Yet she is still nervous about returning to Brighton and reconnecting with Caddy and Rosie, who will soon be leaving for their respective universities. Suzanne, on the other hand, her schooling interrupted by her mental health issues, isn’t sure yet what she wants to do for further education or a career. First she has to adjust to living on her own—and accept, maybe, that living on your own doesn’t mean doing everything on your own.
Trigger warnings in this book for discussions of child abuse and neglect, discussions of suicide attempts, and anxiety.
Although I haven’t been through the same experiences that have shaped Suzanne, there was definitely a lot about this book that really resonated for me—not just in Suzanne’s character but the others as well. Early in, as she is getting settled in to her new place and reconnecting, Suzanne reflects at how she feels undeserving of her friends:
Caddy beams at me, as happy as if I’d just complimented her personally, and I think, for the millionth time, how much I don’t deserve her. No one’s ever believed in me like she does, and she kept on doing it, even when I gave her no reason to. She emailed me every single week for the entire time I lived in Southampton, even when I didn’t reply. (And to be honest, I usually didn’t.)
Usually I’m the Caddy in this situation. I’ve got a facility for words and a need to make my friends feel good by saying nice things to them. Some of my friends just … don’t respond, though. And with some of them, fine, I’m going to try a little less next time … that’s how friendships go. But what Caddy knows and Suzanne isn’t letting herself admit is that sometimes you have those friendships which are worth the effort. I have one friend in particular who seldom replies to my texts (but makes up for it in myriad other ways), and I’m sure sometimes she feels the way Suzanne does here. So after reading this passage, that was what I texted her in my morning message to her the next morning: it doesn’t matter if you think you deserve me or not; I think you deserve me, so there.
We don’t always get to choose whether people want to help us.
And then soon after Suzanne reflects: “What I really wanted was to be the kind of person who had friends like that. I wanted it more than I’d ever wanted anything.” And, wow, do I ever feel that big mood. I was just reflecting on a similar feeling in a podcast episode with my friend Rebecca. I confessed to her, tried to articulate this feeling I had had in previous years of our friendship, watching her be her gregarious self and go out to bars, etc.—things I don’t do. It wasn’t that I wanted to do those things. It was that I wanted to be the person who did those things, which I think is a separate thing entirely. Much like Suzanne, I had to do the work of learning to love myself for who I am and who I might become, not who I thought I should be.
I also love how Barnard handles Suzanne’s relationships. There are her friendships with Caddy and Rosie, of course. These are fraught with complexity in the best possible way, particularly when Caddy and Suzanne have a minor falling out. And it’s a thing, but it isn’t a thing—it isn’t an all-consuming plot point or a dramatic, end-of-the-world fight like you might get in some books. Rosie makes the point: best friends have these problems sometimes, but they will get over it. That doesn’t stop me from identifying hard with the way Suzanne is so anxious and concerned about what’s happening, because she has clung so hard to these friendships and is so worried about what happens if they slip away.
Suzanne also befriends a much older woman, Dilys. In addition to the pleasure of seeing an intergenerational friendship of this type, Dilys can be read as aromantic/asexual:
There have been women I’ve loved very dearly, but in friendship. There have been men I’ve loved like that too. All very platonic, you see. I never felt like I needed anything more than that.
That’s about as close as you can get without using the words on the page (which obviously would have been preferable), and we’re 11% of the way through the book at this point and I’m just like … yes. Yes, thank you for normalizing this by just making it part of a minor character’s backstory and not a whole Thing.
Immediately after that, Suzanne asks if Dilys was lonely as a result, and Dilys’ reply is … exquisite:
Yes, sometimes, but what you have to understand is, relationships aren’t a shield against loneliness. Not romantic ones, that is. One of my dearest friends was unhappy in her marriage for many years; that’s a type of loneliness…. I get lonely now, yes. That comes with being old.
It’s moments like this, passages like that, when I feel so seen, as a nearly-thirty aro ace person who has no desire to date or have a partner. I get lonely sometimes, but isn’t from being alone, it’s just from being human. And it’s really nice to see that acknowledged.
Lest you think Barnard is merely throwing me a bone before pivoting full bore into a romance subplot, allow me to reassure you, dear review reader, that is not the case. Fierce Fragile Hearts indeed has a love interest, and there is indeed an element of romance going on here. Barnard has to walk a fine line between portraying how Suzanne’s trauma has influenced her wariness about romance and misrepresenting trauma and abuse victims as being “unlovable.” This is not an easy thing to do, and as someone who hasn’t had these experiences, it’s not in my lane to comment on it. What I will say, though, is that I love how Barnard tries to defuse and subvert the idea that a romantic partner (particularly a man dating a woman) will somehow “fix” someone:
He hesitates, then nods. “I want to make you happy,” he says. “I want to be the one who makes it right.”
“You can’t,” I say. “And that’s a terrible foundation for a relationship, anyway.”
“I know,” he says. “But I want it anyway.”
It would be so easy to write a story where the love interest swoops in and saves the day, lifts Suzanne up, shows her how amazing she is through his eyes, and somehow restores her to a fuller version of herself. And that is … not realistic. We all deserve love—but we don’t all necessarily need or want romantic love—and sometimes these fairytale narratives proliferate to the point of being harmful. Barnard’s subversion is so direct, pointed, and honest that it’s beautiful.
To drive it home, in case you still weren’t getting it, Barnard drops one more on us near the end of the book:
Let me tell you, anyone who thinks romantic love is the pinnacle of human emotion has never had a friend who looked at them like she looked at me. Love might burn the brightest fires, but fires burn out. Friendship is warm and steady, constant. It keeps me alive.
Review reader, I made the mistake of finishing this book during my half hour of lunch at work and … yeah, I was crying by this point. I was crying for the whole ending, the overall poignancy of the conclusion—but if I hadn’t been crying already, the above moment would have pushed me over the edge. (I tried to keep it together because there was someone else in the room and I didn’t want to freak her out, but I’m pretty sure she noticed and was just playing it cool.) I’m crying now as I write about this. That quotation is my everything. I have never had a romantic partner, never dated, never wanted that. But I love my friends so deeply, and especially in the past few years, I have found certain friends who are my “everything,” as Suzanne says.
There’s so much more to talk about in Fierce Fragile Hearts, of course. Everything involved in Suzanne learning to live on her own. Her relationships with her family. The way that she grows demonstrably from beginning to end of the book—I think this ending is perfect and am tempted to quote the final lines to you, but I think I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own. Just as I’ll leave discussions of these other elements to people who feel like they can be more coherent about them, since at the moment I’m starting to feel like I just want to go into a corner and babble more about how much I loved this book.
Fierce Fragile Hearts is honest but never brutal. It’s raw but never cruel. It has moments of profound sadness yet also moments of incredible happiness and hope. In short, Barnard gives us a microcosm of our existence and a reminder that our lives will never achieve some mythical state of perfection. We are, all of us, going to have fuck ups and difficulties and moments of abject misery—but we can get past those. We can ask for help. We have friends who are looking out for us. We are not alone.
This is a beautiful book.