A string of suspicious deaths near a small Michigan town ends with a fall that claims the life of Emma Gentry’s boyfriend, Daniel. Emma is broken, a hollow shell mechanically moving through her days. She and Daniel had been made for each other, complete only when they were together. Now she restlessly wanders the town in the late Fall gloom, haunting the cemetery and its white-marbled tombs, feeling Daniel everywhere, his spectre in the moonlight and the fog.
When she encounters newcomer Alex Franks, only son of a renowned widowed surgeon, she’s intrigued despite herself. He’s an enigma, melting into shadows, preferring to keep to himself. But he is as drawn to her as she is to him. He is strangely…familiar. From the way he knows how to open her locker when it sticks, to the nickname she shared only with Daniel, even his hazel eyes with brown flecks are just like Daniel’s. The closer they become, though, the more something inside her screams there’s something very wrong with Alex Franks.
And when Emma stumbles across a grotesque and terrifying menagerie of mangled but living animals within the walls of the Franks’ estate, creatures she surely knows must have died from their injuries, she knows.
Broken is a modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Not having read the original and only being superficially aware of the storyline, I went into Broken relatively unknowing of what to expect and what notes A.E. Rought needed to hit to remain somewhat faithful to the original, beyond a mad scientist, electricity, sown-together parts, and “It’s ALIVE!”. All of those elements were there in the book in one form or another, but what is central to the book is the relationship between Emma and Alex. It is also an exploration of grief and how hard it can be to let go.
The first time Emma lays eyes on Alex a jolt of electricity runs through and she’s immediately deeply drawn to him. Now, normally the insta-love trope is my least favourite trope in YA fiction. However, in Broken there is actually a reasonable explanation for it and it really worked. Rought explores one of the big mysteries people used to wonder about with organ transplants. Does implanting someone with another person’s heart or kidney transfer some part of the other’s soul or personality to the receiver? And if so, if we meet the person who’s received parts of our beloved, will they recognise us? I liked this treatment of the insta-love trope and it’s one of the rare cases in which it worked without feeling forced.
The star of this book is undoubtedly Emma. Hurting, grieving, and lost, she is the first person narrator we follow through the tale and whose confused and intense feelings we get to experience with her. Emma’s grief for Daniel felt real and mostly healthy; hanging out at the cemetery might seem a little extreme, but it takes time to get over a loss like this and if that is how you deal with it, that is how you deal with it. Less healthy is the way she’s isolated herself. Emma keeps everything inside and feels that she can’t talk about what happened with Daniel, especially as the months have passed. Rought shows some of Emma’s mourning process and how she moves through it. There is one scene where Emma breaks down and finally lets her mum in and just sobs and sobs—that scene was powerful, enough so that I was crying with her. Another very powerful scene was the scene where she consciously says goodbye to Daniel and has to let go of the emptiness inside, so she can go on living. I found that one very moving as well.
If Emma is the star then Alex is the main lead. I found him interesting, but while I really liked him and sympathised with his trauma and problems, he never took on the same depth as Emma. His and Emma’s struggle to come to grips with the situation they’re in and whether they love each other for who they are instead of who they were, however, was very interesting and I found it convincing that Rought included these doubts, instead of just going with it must have been fate. Emma’s best friend Bree is fabulous. Wholesome, geeky, and completely in Emma’s corner, she’s the best friend any girl would love to have. Emma’s parents are lovely as well; I loved how her mum is struggling with seeing her little girl grow up and getting hurt and not trying to put her in bubble wrap as much as she can. What’s even lovelier is that Emma sees and understands this even as she rebels against it. Emma’s dad is the voice of reason between the two and I loved his warm and humorous demeanour. When we come to the villains, I’m less enthusiastic. I didn’t find them compelling and I felt they lacked depth. Josh is an ass, but I never really got his motivation. I mean I understand him wanting Emma, but the things he does to achieve this are rather far-fetched and I didn’t really understand how he got there. Similarly for Alex’s father, Dr Franks; I suppose it’s to do with his grief at losing Alex’s mother and not wanting to lose his son as well, but we never really get any handle on the man.
Broken was an entertaining read and I read it over the course of a day, which shows how easily it keeps the reader turning pages. The fact that Rought makes the insta-love trope work as she does is an achievement in itself. The story-telling in the novel is very well done, but the development of the characters felt rather uneven, with the villains feeling far less well-rounded than the other main characters. Still, it’s a promising debut and I’m looking forward to see how Rought develops her writing. Broken is an at times heart-breaking read, but Emma’s snarky inner monologue keeps it from being morose and super dark. In all, Broken is a solid winter evening read, which will leave you warm and fuzzy when you close its pages.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.