Title: Beauty of the Broken
Author: Tawni Waters
Length: 359 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ¾
In Mara Stonebrook’s rural and extremely conservative-Christian New Mexico town, being different is frowned upon, but being anything other than straight is downright dangerous–especially in the eyes of her bigoted drunk of a father. Mara has watched him beat her older brother Iggy all her life, and she knows her passive alcoholic mother wouldn’t step in if he found out that she’s interested in girls instead of boys. Yet not long after one of his beatings leaves her brother with permanent brain damage, Mara finds herself unable to resist the charms of Xylia, a transfer student from San Francisco. Her friendship with Xylia eventually turns romantic and provides her with inspiration and hope in an otherwise unhappy life–but at what cost?
I mostly chose this one for the abused-daughter-of-an-alcoholic-mother angle, because I’m always curious how authors will address what is, for me, an daily reality. Whereas my mother is the abuser, Mara’s is a battered woman unable to protect herself or her children (though before realizing that she’s gay Mara is mostly spared) who uses alcohol as a coping mechanism. Battered woman syndrome is a real ting, but it was still hard not to shake her until she opened her eyes, especially after one incident transformed her beloved son from valedictorian candidate to special-ed student.
And Mrs. Stonebrook is the most nuanced character in the book.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This book wasn’t terrible, and I found it compelling enough while I read it. Mara’s situation does come across as a bit over-the-top, but then abusive and dysfunctional families aren’t pretty. As a character, Mara feels mostly realistic even when she isn’t particularly sympathetic or likable–I mean, I don’t always like myself or my overly-emotional reactions to things, either. To me, her confusion and anger and insecurity are all understandable. Only her relationship with her brother rubbed me slightly the wrong way. I get that she has to struggle to accept losing the version of Iggy she grew up with, but she’s often downright cruel to her now-disabled brother.
The writing itself is one of the novel’s strong points, too. It’s positively lyrical in places, albeit painfully simplistic in others, and there are some truly lovely passages interspersed among more mundane ones.
Unfortunately there isn’t much plot to be found here, nor can it be called a character study. Beauty of the Broken might be considered a coming-of-age novel, but it reads more than anything like a list of bad things that happen to Mara and/or her loved ones. These increase exponentially in severity and regularity towards the end of the novel, leaving readers–or me, at least– feeling a bit numb and overwhelmed. It does seem as though the author was going for shock value by including some of these traumatic events (though I hope not). I will say that some of the depictions of parental abuse, from Mara’s perspective, are quite effective. I really empathized with the concept of tiptoeing around the abusive parent, never sure what will trigger an outburst, and Mara’s conflicted feelings about her “daddy”–does she love or hate him?–also hit home for me. I can’t speak to the other situations or whether they’re handled well or not.
And other than Mara, who herself seems to grow very little even in the face of such tragedy, the characters are all one-note stereotypes. Mara’s father is an angry, bigoted, wife- and child-beating drunk who openly believes that women should know their place and gays should be killed. Xylia is a flower child/free spirit/manic pixie dream girl. Their friend Henry is “an Indian” who spouts vaguely wise-sounding things about spirituality and God and is called a “heathen” by people like Mara’s father. And it goes on in that vein. The “bad” characters (Mara’s father, for instance, and the preacher’s son who has a crush on her and can’t take no for an answer) are also very, very, absurdly “bad.” They seem like storybook villains, not real human beings.
But the worst thing about Beauty of the Broken, to me, is the unrealistic nature of pretty much everything that happens. Of course there are bigoted closed-minded people out there who abuse their families; of course there are small towns whose “good old boy” networks make it difficult for justice to be done. But those realities are taken to extremes here.
Where, for instance, is the concerned person–doctor, nurse, teacher, whatever–who reports Iggy’s repeated concussions and eventual disablement to Child Protective Services? After all, he doesn’t play football; he just comes to the hospital all beat up time and time again until, as Mara says, his “brain breaks.” Don’t tell me everyone in town would just ignore injuries that frequent and severe. And am I supposed to believe that Mara really gets bullied by her teacher for, among other things, getting sick during anatomy lessons–and then that the principle scolds her for her “unladylike” clothes and for throwing up in the classroom trash (instead of the bathroom)?! Sure, she attends a Christian school, but it’s supposed to be set in the present, not the 1950s. Also, this school supposedly has the “best test scores in the state,” but Mara’s lessons mostly deal with her teacher’s sick personal interests and how Islam comes from the devil, so I have trouble believing that claim.
Other things readers are asked to swallow hook, line, and sinker: that Mara falls in love with a random new girl at first sight and that that new girl not only happens to be a lesbian, too, but immediately falls for Mara as well; that the hospital staff and police conveniently “lose” key evidence in one of the various tragedies that happen to Mara and that it “happens all the time”; and that Mrs. Stonebrook, who clearly loves her son more than anything in the world (including Mara) never does anything significant to protect him.
Also, for someone who literally believes that her life–and possibly her mother’s and brother’s–might be in danger if her secret gets out, Mara sure spends a lot of time holding her girlfriend’s hand in public, talking about her, making out with her, etc. Her apparent inability to think/care about anyone BUT Xylia also got old really fast. Crushes can be powerful, but that doesn’t mean they are or should be all-consuming.
I appreciate what the author was attempting in this book, and also the gloves-off approach to parental abuse. I think she’s a talented writer as well. The character development, plot, and feasibility of this supposedly realistic story need a lot of work, though, so I hope that Ms. Waters’ next novel is an improvement on this one in those areas.