An unforgettable and moving novel about an affluent suburban family whose carefully constructed façade crumbles with the unexpected arrival of an endangered young girl.
I have something for you.
When Quinn Cruz receives that cryptic text message from her older sister Nora, she doesn’t think much of it. They haven’t seen each other in nearly a year and their relationship consists mostly of infrequent phone calls and the occasional email. But when a haunted-looking Nora shows up just hours later, a chain reaction is set into motion that will change both of their lives forever.
Nora’s “something” is more shocking than Quinn could have ever imagined: a little girl, cowering and wide-eyed. Nora hands her over to Quinn with instructions to keep her safe and disappears, leaving Quinn as the unlikely caretaker of a girl introduced simply as Lucy.
“Steeped in menace...a race-to-the-finish family drama” (People), Little Broken Things explores life and death, family and freedom, and the lengths one woman will go to protect the ones she loves.
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Little Broken Things
KEY LAKE WASN’T DEEP. It wasn’t particularly lovely either, but the tree-lined shores fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and there was something dusky and mysterious about the slant of light when the sun began to set across the water. The lake had a beauty all its own, and Quinn tried to remind herself of that as she sat on the edge of the dock, her toes ringed by specks of bright green algae. If she leaned over far enough she could see not just the bubbles from Walker’s submerged snorkel but the shape of him, too. Murky and indistinct beneath the slightly brackish water. But there he was. Diving. Hers.
When he broke the surface, Quinn stretched out her foot, toes curled like a ballerina en pointe, and he placed a piece of smooth glass on top of it with a smile. “It’s not a slipper,” he said after taking the mouthpiece of the snorkel out from between his teeth. “But we could call you Cinderella all the same.”
“Does that make you Prince Charming?”
“Not even close.” Walker palmed the piece of glass and moved through the lake as silent and smooth as the little waves that lapped at the posts of the old dock. Then he pulled himself up and out, spilling water from the fine lines of his body, naked but for the boxers. He settled himself on the dock beside her, cool and dripping.
“I wish you’d put on a proper swimming suit,” Quinn protested, but something deep in her stomach knotted at the sight of him. Her husband wasn’t handsome so much as he was striking. It was impossible to meet Walker Cruz and not stare. It was the breadth of his strong hands, the ropy muscles of his dark forearms. The five o’clock shadow that he let curl into an honest-to-goodness beard when he was too preoccupied with a project to shave. Most appealing and confusing to Quinn was the intelligent, peculiar flash of his copper-flecked eyes. Sometimes, when he looked at her, Quinn felt like he was a stranger. Even though she slept beside him every night.
“Your boxers are practically see-through,” she told him. “My mom has a telescope, you know.”
Walker shook his head and scattered droplets of water over Quinn. “Mrs. Sanford can look to her heart’s content.” He laughed, dismissing the house across the lake with a flick of his fingers.
Quinn didn’t have to look to know that the windows of her childhood home winked black as the sun slipped behind its brick walls. Maybe her mom was watching. Maybe not. She tried not to care either way, but it was hard not to. Indifference was for people who had no reason to care. Unfortunately, Quinn had many reasons. For starters, the fact that she and Walker were living in her mother’s rental. Or that they were both—temporarily, she hoped—unemployed. And, of course, there was Walker himself. It didn’t matter that Quinn loved him; her mother thought he was unsatisfactory—and she made little attempt to hide her disdain.
“Hey.” Walker put a damp finger under her chin and tugged her face toward his own. His kiss was wet and warm. He tasted of lake water and the Chardonnay they had with grilled chicken for supper: buttery and crisp. “It’s temporary,” he reminded her.
“Define temporary,” Quinn murmured against his lips, but he was already pulling away.
“You didn’t like Los Angeles.”
Quinn made a noise in the back of her throat. “It’s better than here.”
But Walker would not be so easily disregarded. “We’ll be gone before winter.”
“It’s August,” Quinn said as if that was proof. That winter was coming. That they had already lingered here too long. Paying her mother half of what a summer vacation rental normally brought in and validating Elizabeth Sanford’s many warnings about the financial instability of marrying a struggling artist.
“My piece will sell,” Walker said, and the glint in his eye was almost enough to make Quinn believe. Almost.
“Can I see it?”
He shook his head but held up the polished, cloudy glass between his thumb and forefinger. “A hint,” he said, and the smile that played on his lips was enough to make Quinn grin back in spite of herself.
“You’re crazy,” she said.
“Crazy genius? Or just crazy crazy?” Walker pushed himself up and offered his hands to Quinn, the glass still clutched between his last two fingers and his palm. She could feel the cool smoothness of it pressed between their skin when he lifted her.
“Just crazy, I think.”
Quinn could have argued, but she wasn’t in the mood. Walker’s feet made a set of perfect footprints on the worn boards of the dock, and she followed them carefully, her own small feet swallowed up by the dark silhouette of his. Their life wasn’t crazy. Not exactly. It just wasn’t what Quinn had always hoped it would be.
At the edge of the dock, Walker stopped and slid his feet into the ratty flip-flops he had kicked off earlier. Between the dock and the house was a stretch of shorn grass that refused to grow properly because of the sandy soil beneath. It was rough and sprinkled with thistles, but it was perfect for bocce ball and lying on a towel in the sun, the two pastimes that had dominated their summer routine—if the lazy, haphazard way they filled their days could be called a routine.
They were waiting. Waiting for something better. Waiting for inspiration to strike. But lately Walker had been too busy in the boathouse he had transformed into an art studio to play or lounge with her. To wait. Quinn was happy for him, truly she was, but she didn’t like being locked out of any area of his life. Walker’s art was the worst. She felt small in the bald-faced hunger of his need for texture and color and light. The way he shivered at the sight of prairie grass bent by a storm or a branch that had fallen askew, crooked and disturbing as a broken limb.
Quinn wasn’t nearly so deep. She felt lost in her husband sometimes. Like she was drowning.
“You coming in?” she asked, trailing a finger down his damp arm. “You’ll need to change.”
It was an excuse. She craved him like water, the almond slant of his eyes, the way his skin was as dark and fine as sun-warmed soil. He had a slight accent from summers spent in Mexico City with his father’s family, and a lilting softness that rounded his consonants courtesy of his Ghanian immigrant mother. Quinn loved it all.
Her husband was so extraordinary. Set apart. Quinn ached for him, for something more than a mere wedding band to bind them together. She was his, heart and soul and body and mind and anything else she had to give. Quinn just didn’t know if he was hers in the same way.
“I have clothes in the boathouse,” Walker said. He was already distracted, his gaze on the high windows of the old, box-shaped building that housed his fever dream. It had been many long months since Quinn had seen him this way, but now he was a man consumed. There was little room for anything else. Even her. She let her hand fall to her side.
“Okay,” Quinn said. “Don’t be too late.”
He took several steps away from her, dismissed, his mind obviously on whatever awaited him in his makeshift art studio. But as Quinn watched, he caught himself and paused, gave his wife a final second of his attention. “You all right?”
“I’m fine,” she assured him. “Go.” She hadn’t told him about her sister’s text. And she wasn’t about to when he was already concentrating on something else.
I have something for you.
What was Quinn supposed to do with that? A single cryptic message was typical Nora, and Walker would tell her as much. He wouldn’t give it another thought, and his nonchalance would only make Quinn feel silly for wondering. For worrying. But she couldn’t help it. I have something for you implied a transaction of sorts. She hadn’t seen Nora in over a year and she longed for her older sister with an almost childish desperation. They had never been close, not really, but absence and an air of mystery had rendered Nora the stuff of dreams. Her random texts and even less frequent phone calls felt almost illicit, dangerous, though as far as Quinn knew the worst thing her sister had ever done was walk away from a full-ride scholarship to Northwestern and shrug off Sanford family expectations.
Quinn envied her sometimes.
Walker didn’t seem to notice that anything was wrong, and he winked at Quinn as he walked away, his flip-flops slapping his heels in rhythm as he carried his find to the boathouse.
It wasn’t much, that tiny piece of glass. Walker’s installations were usually magnificent in size and stature, and Quinn had a hard time reconciling the artifacts he was digging up from the lake with the immense sculptures her husband was known for.
He had been almost spiritless since they moved from Los Angeles to Key Lake, Minnesota, at the beginning of the summer. At least, artistically speaking. Quinn had loved the undivided attention she’d received for the nearly two months of Walker’s creative dry spell, the way that he trained the intensity of his concentration on her. She was his outlet for the long, hot weeks of June and July, her body and the plane of her hips, the way that her back lowered to her narrow waist, the object of his obsession. Walker had always been a singular man, devoted and laser-focused since the moment she met him in an introductory art class in college. He had been the professor’s work study, but Walker ended up teaching most of the class. And Quinn had admired his obvious devotion from the start. She’d wished maybe she had more of whatever Walker possessed hidden somewhere in her own soul.
Quinn wasn’t nearly so exceptional. But she was determined. And as far as she was concerned, this humiliating homecoming, these months of living under the watchful, disapproving eye of her mother, were nothing more than a detour.
She shielded her eyes against the sunset and stared across the lake, daring Liz Sanford to stare back. All at once she was grateful for Walker’s boxers, for the unruly flip of his dark hair, for the way her life was on display. Even an enigmatic text message from her sister couldn’t get Quinn down. She knew what she wanted. And this time she wasn’t going to let anything stop her.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Little Broken Things includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group ﬁnd new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
From author Nicole Baart, whose writing has been called “gorgeously composed” (Publishers Weekly), “taut and engrossing” (Booklist), and “evocative and beautiful” (RT Book Reviews), Little Broken Things is an absorbing and suspenseful story about two estranged sisters reunited by the unexpected arrival of an endangered young girl.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Little Broken Things explores motherhood in all its many forms. Tiﬀany and Liz are oﬃcial parents, but Nora and Quinn also take on mothering roles in the book. What makes a good mother? Would you consider these women good mothers?
2. Liz is unlike the other characters in the novel. She’s old-fashioned, patriarchal, and even a little racist. How does she change throughout the book? What do you think prompts this change?
3. In the novel, Nora sacriﬁces a great deal for Tiﬀany and Everlee. Why do you think she does that? Would you have done the same in her position?
4. Remembering her late husband, Liz says: “Jack Sanford had not been a good man. True, he was steady and levelheaded and hardworking. He had made a way for himself in a world that favored the lucky, the people who were born with privilege and a place at the table. Jack Sr. had none of those things. But he took a small farmer’s inheritance and made something of it, built a legacy for his wife and kids and fought for it every day of his life. If he argued the validity of a bootstraps philosophy, it was only because he pulled himself up by them. A success story.” Do you feel that Jack’s challenges and determination in any way justify his actions?
5. Tiﬀany’s story is one of heartbreak and loss. She leaves because she believes her daughter will be better oﬀ without her. Is this act sacriﬁcial or selﬁsh? Do you agree with her decision?
6. Nora thinks of her sister as “perfect little Quinn.” In what ways does Quinn live up to that reputation? In what ways does she defy her sister’s expectations?
7. Why do you think Tiﬀany named her daughter Everlee?
8. Although Liz is loath to admit that she and Walker have some- thing in common, they are indeed both artists. Throughout the novel, what are some ways these two characters’ art inﬂuences their worldviews?
9. Who is your favorite character in Little Broken Things? Why? Is there a character you don’t like or don’t understand? Explain.
10. Why do you think Liz’s relationship with her daughters is so strained, and who—if anyone—is to blame? Do you have hope for them at the end of the book?
11. Throughout the novel, Everlee’s paternity is in question. How does the revelation of her real father aﬀect your reading of the novel? Does it change your perspective of certain characters?
12. Toward the end of the novel, Liz tells Macy: “I think I have a God complex.” Do you agree that this aﬄiction could apply to a multiple characters in Little Broken Things? If so, which ones?
13. At the end of the novel, Tiﬀany makes a very deliberate decision that ends in Donovan’s death. Is she a killer?
14. Walker names his sculpture Elizabeth Undone. Why do you think he does this? Is that an appropriate title for his piece?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Art plays an important role in Little Broken Things. Visit an art gallery with your book club, or if there is not one nearby, encourage book club members to share a picture of their favorite pieces of art.
2. Motherhood is a major theme in the novel, and many of us often forget how much sacriﬁce and love it requires. Take a moment today to thank your mother for the role she plays in your life. Send a card or ﬂowers, or simply pick up the telephone. If your mother is no longer living, share a treasured memory of her with a friend or family member.
3. The Sanfords were known for their fabulous parties. Throw a party for your next book club meeting. Dress up, drink champagne, and enjoy some of the appetizers mentioned throughout Little Broken Things (e.g. endive stuﬀed with goat cheese and blood oranges; prosciutto-wrapped ﬁgs; or cherry tomato, mozzarella, and fresh basil skewers).
4. Like Everlee, many children from broken homes ﬁnd themselves in diﬃcult situations and could use a little kindness and help. Make a donation of clothing, toys, or money to your state foster care organization or bring grocery items to your local food pantry. You never know the impact your gift may have on a child and his or her family!