{Review} Breaking Beautiful by Jennifer Shaw Wolf

I wonder how long until I’m allowed to be happy again.

That is the essence of Jennifer Shaw Wolf’s unique debut novel, Breaking Beautiful: Is there a point at which we can no longer heal?

Allie is the only survivor of a car accident that killed her boyfriend, town football star and golden boy, Trip. She has no memory of the accident, but is left with scar on her head and memories of the side of her relationship with Trip that no one else saw—or chose to ignore, in some cases. See, while Trip wore #33, he was no Tim Riggins. Allie suffered from Trip’s physical and mental abuse to the point where she has lost herself.

With Trip around, I was isolated from the rest of the school, but I was isolated with him for company. Now I’m just alone. 

Following Trip’s death, Allie slowly rekindles a friendship with her childhood friend, Blake. As their friendship slowly moves toward being something more, the mystery surrounding Trip’s death grows as well. While the town memorializes Trip and vilifies Allie for trying to move on with her life, local police begin to investigate, and Allie begins to question what really happened the night her boyfriend died.

Breaking Beautiful fills a niche that’s largely missing in YA—it’s a dark, mature, contemporary mystery.

While it has elements of romance and an exploration of the complexities of teenage relationships (romantic, friendship and familial), the mystery is at the core of the novel and it was easy to be swept into Shaw Wolf’s fast-moving narrative. I love a dark mystery, but I haven’t found a lot in that niche in YA, despite its prevalence in adult fiction.

Allie’s character felt very real.

Told from her first-person point-of-view, Breaking Beautiful shifts in time between the present and flashbacks of Allie’s increasingly-abusive relationship with trip. The scenes in the past were tough, really tough. While reading, I could feel Allie becoming more and more of a shell, and started to dread the sections that took place in the past, because I knew another piece of Allie would erode. But, Shaw Wolf manages this quite deftly, as I never felt like this was an “issue book,” in the guise of a mystery—it was, quite simply, dark and real.

He keeps sharpening the stick, watching the fire, and me, and sharpening the stick with his pocketknife. We’re alone. Everyone else has coupled up, left the party, or passed out in Randal’s parents’ camper. I’m waiting for an invitation to join him on the other side of the fire, but his expression tells me I’m in trouble. I know why.

“James is a jerk when he’s drunk,” I finally say. I never know when it’s better to speak up and try to defend myself or when I should keep my mouth shut.

The secondary characters were also quite compelling, particularly Allie’s twin brother Alex, who has Cerebral Palsy and starts a relationship with the vibrant Caitlyn, who while playing a small role in the novel, steals every scene she’s in (I could probably quite easily read an entire novel devoted to Alex and Caitlyn). I was quickly rooting for Blake—Allie’s friend who becomes something more—because he’s not perfect, but at his core he’s a good person who has always cared for Allie and he understands that he can’t push things with her,

I lean over to take off my shoes. A piece of hair falls forward and sticks to my check. Blake reaches to brush it back.

Instinctively, I flinch away.

“I’m sorry.” He takes a step backward and worry fills his eyes.

“It’s okay.” I duck my head, finish taking off my shoes, and walk out of the cave without looking at him. He doesn’t try to touch me again. 

The reality of small town culture were also skillfully depicted.

Allie’s Washington seaside town could be any small community in America. I grew up in a place just like it. These places are in some ways wonderful—people look out for each other, there’s a sense of togetherness that’s often missing in big cities.

However, the culture can be stifling, and the Golden Boys and Girls are untouchable. And when they are horrible people, it really does not matter. For example, I’m sure some folks will roll their eyes at Allie’s mother’s aggressive pushing of Allie and Trip’s relationship because of the status it represents. But, kids, this happens all the time in small towns—I knew people where I grew up whose parents were exactly like this. The same goes for the way everyone in town refuses to give Blake a chance because he’s gotten in trouble in the past—in towns like this your past is your identity and it’s very, very hard to move beyond that. And with that said, none of the depictions of the town felt like stereotypes, it was just authentic. 

Breaking Beautiful is not a perfect book, however.

I would have loved to see Blake’s transformation and character growth happen on the page. While this is somewhat a limitation of Allie’s first person point-of-view, much of what happens with Blake’s character we know only because Allie tells us these things have happened. Because he is a complicated and likable personality, I wanted to see more of where he was coming from and learn more about his life. Additionally, the subplot involving Trip’s father was a bit much for me, and I was left wishing it had been more subtle. 

Despite these minor reservations, Breaking Beautiful is a stand-out debut and Jennifer Shaw Wolf is an author to watch. 

I can’t end this review without a few comments on Breaking Beautiful’s stunning cover. It encapsulates so much about this story: the setting, the loneliness Allie experiences, the key plot elements. It knocked it out of the park. I was excited to see on the author’s website that her husband had photographed the cover and that she had a hands-on role in creating the look. You can read more about it here. 

Verdict: Highly Recommended

FNL Character Rating: Becky Sproles; like Becky, I didn’t feel particularly connected to Allie until the end, but that didn’t matter—I was rooting for her nevertheless.

 Publication Date: April 24, 2012

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I received a review copy of Breaking Beautiful from the publisher via Net Galley. No compensation or other “goodies” were received in exchange for my honest review.


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