Fierce Fragile Hearts by Sara Barnard
A few weeks ago I was listening to an episode of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,* where the hosts were discussing the first time Snape calls his Lily Potter, his best friend, the loaded slur of the Harry Potter world – a mudblood; and the great well of shame that Snape is still clearly swimming in as a result, decades after the fact. Stay with me, I promise this is going somewhere. This is the first time in the whole story that we get a proper look at the Marauders.
They are, for the first time, normal teenage boys, who can be bullies, who, even within their own friendship group, impose a hierarchy that defines who is loved, and who is tolerated. In the podcast, host Arianna Nettleman says of the way they treat Peter Pettigrew, AKA Wormtail, that, essentially, his friends teach him how to be a servant to Voldermort – that he has, in fact, learned that he has to follow along at the heels and be reverential, as that is the only way that he can be loved and kept on the inside. I know everyone is kind of over HP discourse but that take truly, like truly shook me.
Fierce Fragile Hearts was on my mind after I listened to it, because I read it not long before, and it has the opposite message about friendship - that you don’t have to step on your own heart for people to like you; that you don’t have to put on a happy face all the time to be tolerated; that being honest about how you feel and opening up to people can in fact, open up your life to the people that most deserve to know you. Essentially, you don’t need to be perfect to be loved.
Beautiful Broken Things, Sara Barnard’s debut novel released in 2015, follows very ordinary teenager Caddy, her best friend Rosie, and their whirlwind friendship with new girl Suzanne. It was one of my favourite reads of 2015, so much that I made a video about it.
Fierce Fragile Hearts picks up two years after the events of Beautiful Broken Things, and follows Suzanne’s bumpy but resolute road to recovery. She has been through things nobody, let alone someone still in their teens, should ever have to go through, and Sara Barnard doesn’t shy away from how difficult adjusting the dial and trying to live a full and healthy life, without resorting to old vices.
There are hints at Suzanne’s experiences in Beautiful Broken Things, but in Caddy’s head, we only see the Suzanne that survived and is facing the painful and emotional aftermath, and is trying to navigate the social landscape in the only way she knows how - by being fun and vivacious and pushing down the memories of her family. And so much of this is coloured by the fact that Caddy’s knowledge about adverse experience is thankfully limited -so we’re as puzzled as she is.
In Fierce Fragile Hearts, however, we see that Suzanne has grown up in a house where she was emotionally and physically abused, belittled and isolated, and we see the chaos and muted horror of what she went through, although none of it is gratuitous. Fierce Fragile Hearts is one of the only stories I’ve read that reckons with the real damage sustained abuse in particular can do, long after the fact, and how it can impair functional living as an adult.
What is even more impressive is the depiction of thorny relationships Suzanne has with the well intentioned members of her family, who, although they support her, can misunderstand or even dismiss her experiences and needs. Having her cope with that and trying to pull through this is actually one of the most gratifying parts of the novel.
The bright shining star of this series of novels is the friendship between Caddy Rosie and Suzanne. As Caddy and Rosie go to university, their friendship between the three of them enters new waters as they deal with new people, new love interests, loneliness and misguided acts of support, and all of it feels so incredibly real, and true to each individual. Sara Barnard gives real contemplation to relationships between young women. Reading it felt like taking a duster to an untouched room still because this still feels too rare (although I genuinely think that this is changing!)
I also really like how class is distilled throughout the novel. This was also the case in Beautiful Broken Things. Caddy’s big want in BBT was for a ‘significant life event,’ to make things (and her) more interesting, and the book carefully investigates that desire, and shows how it can only exist from a place of deep privilege and safety, even if it is relatable. It is also not lost on me that she is the one out of the trio who went to a fancy school, and in Fierce Fragile Hearts she is going onto Warwick, a Russell Group and one of the most reputable universities in the country.
Fierce Fragile Hearts is a heartening gorgeous story of friendship, healing and how to put together the building blocks of a new life. Suzanne’s journey of self acceptance, and learning that you don’t have to put on a front, pretend you’re okay or be any sort of perfect to be loved.
* The episode I was referring to is called Entitlement: Snape’s Worst Memory.
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