‘1) I would get a boyfriend. A real one.
2) I would lose my virginity.
3) I would experience a Significant Life Event.
In the following year I achieved just one of these goals. And it wasn’t the one I expected.’
Cadnam (Caddy, for short) has always wanted to experience a Significant Life Event. Her sister, Tarin, has bipolar; her best friend, Rosie, had a younger sister who died… But nothing worth mentioning has ever happened to Caddy. Her theory on Significant Life Events? ‘Everyone had them, but some have more than others, and how many you have affects how interesting you are, how many stories you have to tell’. Caddy feels as though she’s unbearably average, because nothing out of the ordinary has ever happened to her: she goes to an all-girls school, so she’s never had a serious relationship; she’s a straight-A student, but she’s not prefect material. She doesn’t wish for a tragedy to befall her, she just wants something to happen to her.
When Rosie introduces Caddy to Suzanne, the new girl at her school who has just moved to Brighton, Caddy’s life takes a few unexpected turns. Suzanne is risky, daring and reckless, sneaking out to visit Caddy in the middle of the night and whisking her off to Reading for a spontaneous weekend away. Caddy’s finally learning how to live her life, but will all this excitement be the death of her?
‘Beautiful Broken Things’ is told across three parts: ‘Before’, ‘When’ and ‘After’. It’s a very interesting way of telling things, because it follows both Caddy and Suzanne’s stories – their plots take very similar twists and turns, and one strongly effects the other. The ‘Before’ section is the longest, taking up nearly three quarters of the book, and while the pacing for ‘When’ and ‘After’ is expertly crafted (the former being extremely high octane, and the latter resolving the situation in a very bittersweet and tender manner) it felt as though the early events dragged at points.
Suzanne was a victim of domestic abuse, getting beaten by her father regularly from the age of seven. Her mother refused to get involved in the situation, and her brother helped her deal with the injuries afterwards but didn’t help stop them being inflicted. She moves to Brighton to live with her aunt, Sarah, after a suicide attempt.
Because ‘Before’ deals with Suzanne’s backstory and establishes the friendship between the trio, it needs to develop gradually, but at times it felt slow and repetitive. Rosie and Suzanne start sniping at each other, and Caddy is caught in the crossfire; Caddy and Suzanne sneak out at night and have deep and meaningful chats… It followed a pattern. It felt authentic – when you’re a sixteen year old girl there’s not a lot to do with your friend in the middle of the night, and arguments do definitely repeat themselves when they’re on such sensitive subjects – but I found myself getting a little bit bored, especially when you could tell that something major was coming (why would you have a ‘Before’ section if there wasn’t something that seriously changed the dynamic?!).
However, that’s my only complaint, and it’s a minor one!
I really liked ‘Beautiful Broken Things’, much more than I’d been expecting to. It’s a UKYA story that doesn’t focus on romantic relationships: it’s centered entirely on female friendship, and I think that’s wonderful. Yes, there are arguments between the trio (particularly between Rosie and Suzanne and Rosie and Caddy) but there needs to be tension to keep things interesting. On the whole, the friendship is supportive and a lot of fun, even if people disapprove of Caddy and Suzanne’s behaviour towards the end of the novel.
It’s just so refreshing. As shown by the quote at the top of this review, Caddy intends to focus on getting a boyfriend and having sex: I breathed a sigh of relief when her priorities shifted. It’s a rare book that doesn’t include a love story, and I didn’t realise how much of a break I’d needed from romance until I read this novel.
Similarly, it doesn’t glamourise or romanticise suicide or depression. Too often nowadays suicide is portrayed as a beautiful and wonderful way to die, when it’s the ultimate act of desperation and it hurts everyone involved in the situation. Suzanne isn’t afraid to contradict that belief (“Sadness isn’t beautiful. And if it looks that way, it’s a lie.”) and I was really happy to see it dealt with in that way – it injects a dose of reality into the situation, which is good for impressionable young readers. I was glad Suzanne didn’t end up committing suicide, because I feel as though it would have contradicted everything established in the novel: Sara Barnard made a brilliant choice, even if making the book less controversial could have impacted on its success.
The ending of the book was extremely bittersweet, but it’s definitely not a cliche. As Caddy herself thinks, ‘This wasn’t how stories like this were meant to end. She was meant to get better and come home, not leave completely. Not after everything’, and I’m glad that Sara decided to take such an unlikely route – there’s no unbelievable resolution here. It’s so nice to see a story like this wrapped up in a realistic manner, with Suzanne unable to return to Brighton and moving away to get a fresh start with a foster family. There’s no immediate sense of resolution – Suzanne has to leave, Caddy has to learn to live without her friend – but that’s good, because life never has neat bows tying all the loose ends together. If Suzanne’s family had welcomed her back with open arms, or if she’d returned to Brighton and had suddenly been completely fixed, it would have been ridiculous.
If you’re looking for a genuine portrayal of mental illness in teenagers, I can’t recommend ‘Beautiful Broken Things’ more. As well as having Suzanne struggling with her depression, Caddy’s bipolar sister Tarin is dealing with her mental illness in a well-adjusted fashion – there are lots of admirable portrayals of people struggling against adversities. It’s also a wonderful piece of UK writing: the descriptions of both Brighton and Reading are so full of life, and it’s so easy to picture the places. ‘Beautiful Broken Things’ is Sara Barnard’s debut novel, and she definitely has a talent for writing YA.