Any time I pick up a book about addiction and recovery, I do so with equal parts hope and trepidation. I hope for the story to accurately portray addiction and recovery, and I fear that it won’t be an accurate portrayal of a struggle and victory I know so well from personal experience. I want to relate to the character when she’s down, and root for her in the end.
Other Broken Things was a little slow to set up as all the players are introduced, and included—like many books about addiction and alcoholism—the protagonist’s drunk-a-log, from a hidden bottle of cough syrup with codeine to water bottles full of vodka. We’re shown from the beginning how this character stays drunk to handle life. She even performs sexual favors for her ex-boyfriend to get her fix, which the book doesn’t shy away from showing.
Natalie’s upbringing looks perfect on the outside. She’s the only child of a successful businessman and a homemaker. She has her own car and nice clothes—everything she could want, it seems. But, as we follow Natalie on her journey in early sobriety, we quickly learn that not everything is as it appears. She has a terrible relationship with her parents, who do not hide their disappointment in having a daughter who likes to box and who doesn’t fit the role of the rich man’s child at cocktail parties. And while she’s busy hating herself, she doesn’t notice that her mother is miserable, too.
I appreciate that Natalie is from a traditionally “good” home, because in my opinion, it’s important that teens realize that addiction and alcoholism don’t care who you are, how much money you do or don’t have, if your parents are still together, or if you’re in high school or college or a successful business person. Addiction doesn’t just strike the poor and unfortunate, which is a dangerous myth many believe.
Natalie doesn’t think she’s an alcoholic: it wasn’t her fault she got caught driving drunk after her boyfriend was too drunk to drive home from a party. As she begins her sentence of court-appointed twelve-step meetings, she refuses to accept responsibility for how her life has changed. So she sits in the meetings, rolling her eyes until it’s time to go have a smoke.
This is where Natalie and I are different, since I entered into sobriety on my own terms, and those meetings were my lifeline. However, despite our differences, I understood Natalie fully and completely from the get-go. Her DUI was not her fault, she believes. It’s never the alcoholic’s fault. We live on resentment for the things that happened to us, never owning the fact that we often put ourselves in positions to be hurt.
Natalie latches onto Joe, a much older man from the meetings who is honest and direct with her about just how new and green she is in sobriety. He calls her out on the lies she tells herself, and she responds well to his brutal honesty.
Like many people in recovery, Natalie craves love and affection, and the only way she knows how to get that is through sex. She flirts with Joe relentlessly and enjoys watching him get increasingly uncomfortable. What she never expects is Joe untangling the mess of her resentments and untruths, and after a fight with her parents, she finds herself calling him, instead of her ex-boyfriend with the vodka or her sponsor.
(In twelve-step groups, newcomers usually pair with a person who’s worked the steps before them. This trusted friend, or sponsor, walks with the newcomer as they work the steps and experience living life without escaping into the bottle or drug.)
The depictions of other people in the meetings felt very real to me. We alcoholics and addicts are all flawed human beings like anyone else and Desir doesn’t gloss over that fact. Joe knows he shouldn’t befriend a newcomer half his age, but he can’t help it—he feels drawn to help her. Natalie’s sponsor gossips about other people in the meeting and is dealing with personal drama that distracts her from her work with Natalie. Every player in the novel felt to me like they could have walked out of my old homegroup and into this book.
There was a joke about Natalie’s court card, which is brought to meetings to have signed as proof for probation after a DUI; someone mentioned how anyone could sign the “card” since the program is anonymous, which I enjoyed, since my friends and I used to joke about that as well. The book had many humorous moments, which made it easy to read since it wasn’t all a downer.
One glaring question that kept coming up for me: where was the young people’s group? This feels like a glaring omission for teen readers who won’t know, based on this book, that there is a huge group of young people in twelve-step programs, called YPAA (Young People in AA) groups. Pronounced y-paw, these YPAAs form committees and throw conferences, hold dances and sing karaoke, play kickball in parks, go on road trips, work together doing service work, stay up all night, and learn how to have fun in sobriety. There was no mention of this facet of recovery and I kept wanting that for Natalie. Young people in recovery are who saved me when I got sober at twenty-six. There were seventeen-year-olds who’d been sober for years by the time I crawled in, and who showed me how awesome it could be to be clear-eyed and happy.
I like to think that maybe Natalie finds this group after the book ends, because by that point, I was most definitely rooting for her.
I very much enjoyed this book. It brought me back to my own days in early sobriety and reminded me why I stay sober. I no longer attend meetings, and this book felt like a little dose of the fellowship I miss. I got teary-eyed and chills near the end when Natalie gets to experience something I did in early recovery. I recommend this book for teens and parents alike. I think it’s important to know that alcoholism and addiction can strike anywhere, and that if it does, there is a solution.