Look at the lovely cover of this book. Observe the pretty birds flying around the title. Admire its eye-catching colour scheme. Now find out why Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard (MacMillan, January 2016) made me feel old. It’s okay; I am, after all, in my 30s and it is inevitable that sometimes (although, worryingly, not that often) YA literature will make me feel my age. I will highlight how ancient and dull I am along with my reflections on Barnard’s novel before watching one of those films about hold people staying in a hotel full of exotic marigolds and going to bed early with an electric blanket.
Barnard’s book focuses on Caddy, a normal teenager doing normal teenage things; hanging out with her friends, complaining about homework and talking about boys. I was a teenager recently enough to know that these topics represent a large part of being 16, and I don’t suppose many of my conversations around that time would have passed the Bechtel test either; while I think I am now too mature and boring to find these topics engaging, the actual target audience of Beautiful Broken Things would probably disagree and laugh at me for being a pensioner.
Caddy and Rosie, her best friend, are ticking along very nicely until Rosie makes a new friend: Suzanne. Suzanne is beautiful and seemingly very nice, none of which makes Caddy any less jealous. Again, so far, so adolescent. Nothing Barnard writes is unrealistic and teenage girls would probably recognise much of their own friendships in the three’s-a-crowd situation which ensues. The thing is that Suzanne is troubled, and seeks a fresh start: something which she seems unable to achieve.
My problem here is, again, that of a boring grown-up and, specifically, a mother. Caddy rails against her parents’ refusal to let her see Suzanne, and her acts of teenage rebellion will probably appeal to a young adult readership (while giving their parents nightmares). I think it’s difficult to read this as both a grown-up and a parent, because there was a big part of me understanding Caddy’s parents’ point of view; yes, Suzanne has reasons to be as messed up as she is, but that doesn’t mean I’d want my daughter wandering the streets at midnight with her or bringing her home from a party (obviously, my daughter will not be allowed to go to parties ever because her mother is the Fun Police). However, my sociopathic lack of empathy aside, Barnard presents the escalating bond between Caddy and Suzanne realistically and with pathos, and the gradual revelations of exactly what Suzanne is running away from are affecting; Caddy’s absorption of Suzanne’s emotional crises often seems to function as a substitute for considering her own personality, which is something I think is a realistic reflection of some teenage friendships. I developed a particular liking for Rosie, whose ‘tell it like it is’ approach to Suzanne was far closer to my own response to moments of crisis.
Beautiful Broken Things does a good job of depicting everyday teenage problems – parties, school pressures, fluctuating friendships – while also drawing attention to more serious issues of mental illness and childhood trauma. It is sad enough and realistic enough to appeal to its young adult audience, while also giving them plenty to think about in its meatier issues.