Sara Samarasinghe, Broken Angel (iTeen Books, 2010)
I’ve emailed back and forth, briefly, with Sara Samarasinghe a few times since I reviewed her book Gotta Love High School. She’s great—the kind of instantly-likable person it’s blinkin’ hard to find in today’s world, and it’s always a pleasure corresponding with her. Which is wonderful when it comes to interpersonal communications, but can be a drawback when it comes to depicting the darker side of human nature. That was the main problem with Gotta Love High School, though it was something you could easily breeze by. It’s more of a stumbling block in Broken Angel, if only because it’s a main plot point in the first quarter of the book—but once again, once you get past that into where Samarasinghe is really going, it’s possible to just cruise right along, because when everything’s going well for her characters, Samarasinghe is a very good writer.
Plot: Angel’s got a good life. Until, that is, her family gets a call that her father has been killed in action overseas. Angel and her mother, both trying to find a way to deal with their grief, begin to drift apart, and Angel starts hanging with “the bad crowd” at her school (what, back in the dark ages, we would’ve called “the burnouts”). It’s not long before Angel hits rock bottom, and as these things usually happen, it’s at that point that she discovers a new, more productive way of handling her grief—and she begins to reach out to those around her, helping them as well. But the toughest task of all may be healing the rift in her own family…
Now, I’ll tell you right up front: I liked this book, I liked it a lot, and more importantly, I liked it a lot despite my almost-complete disbelief in its premise, which impresses me more than it would if I was in lockstep with Angel’s new method of dealing with grief (for example, if she’d formed a powerelectronics band and used lyrics-as-therapy… why has no one written that book yet, huh?). So while I’m going to be pointing out shortcomings (well, shortcoming, singular), keep that in mind—I’m still recommending this one wholeheartedly if you’re a reader of YA lit. Sara Samarasinghe is a writer with a whole lot of promise, and she has a grasp of pace and plotting that’s missing in some writers twice, or three times, her age.
But I keep coming back to that eternal optimism, and (I’m sorry, my New Critic mentors) I simply can’t find a way to separate the work from the author in this case. Like I said, Samarasinghe is a ray of sunshine. From what little correspondence we’ve had, she strikes me as someone who’s bound and determined to see the best in everything and everyone, and that is a fine quality indeed…unless you’re trying to depict a character who’s on a downward spiral into alcoholism. I should probably note that the rest of the paragraph technically constitutes a spoiler, but as Angel’s descent to rock-bottom-ness is really just setup for the meat of the book, I don’t consider it such (and neither, IMO, should you). I could go on about this for hundreds of words, but I can encapsulate it by telling you about Angel’s rock-bottom-ness: it’s her first bender, and I’m using the term “bender” very loosely here. That’s sufficient to bring about the changes that kick-start the rest of the book. Now, I’m far from an authority on the subject, so maybe that really does happen at times, but my own personal experience, both as a former drunk myself and through knowing a whole lot of other drunks over the past few decades, doesn’t bear it out. It’s almost as if the author can’t stand to see her creations in pain. Which, if she continues down this particular path of novel plots, is going to eventually become a much bigger problem than it is here (or in Gotta Love High School). Which is not to say there aren’t novels that <em>can</em> be written using these parameters, and some of them are quite good. (Pretty simple: start the novel when your character is already in recovery, and you start playing on your strengths from page one.)
And ultimately we come back to where I started this: all that stuff I’m yammering on about in that last paragraph? That’s a small portion of the book, ultimately. Broken Angel is a book about the process of healing—healing oneself, healing one’s family, healing one’s friends—drawing out and addressing problems, confronting them, and finding ways to deal with them. And when Samarasinghe is focused on that, as she is for well over two-thirds of this novel, it works, and it is well worth checking out if you haven’t yet discovered the novels of Sara Samarasinghe—definitely a writer to watch. *** ½