All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood is the story of a young girl named Wavy, and her life in the very broken part of the Midwest. Born to criminal drug-dealer parents, Wavy is used to fending for herself. At a young age, the anamalistic Wavy is sent to live with her grandmother when her mother is incarcerated for drug crimes. But tragic events lead to her going back to live with her drug-abusing and mentally ill mother. Wavy takes on the childcare of not only herself, but also her new brother. One night, her life changes when one of her father’s thugs crashes his motorcycle beyond her home. Taking care of the massive Kellen quickly pulls the giant man into Wavy’s orbit. As she grows up with him as her only caring figure, they begin to have a relationship that crosses lines and brings controversy to the local town and has direct and terrible consequences.
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things has been on my To-Read list for a while. Somehow, I kept passing over it – I’m not sure if it was the book’s unobtrusive cover, or the fact that the title belies nothing. I just had no idea what it was, and I passed it over for “book club reads” and other recommendations. Let me say, I’m glad I got to this fascinating story, because it is well worth the read. Please note that there may be some spoilers ahead here.
TRIGGER WARNING – STORY CONTROVERSY
One of the first things that must be mentioned right away is that this book is extremely controversial.
The relationship that Kellen and Wavy have is illegal, because it’s pedophilia due to their significant age gap. This topic makes readers extremely uncomfortable, myself included. If you know something is wrong, it can be difficult to accept a story that some have said romanticizes it. But I found myself struggling with a concept that I’m definitely going to mis-quote: “It only takes one person believing in a child to make them believe in themselves”. I think that Kellen’s kindness and care were fundamental in how I felt about his relationship with Wavy. Most certainly, it defined for me why the little girl continues to love him through her lifetime while also harboring a very deep mistrust for other individuals in her life.
One thing I also felt was notable is that Ms. Greenwood herself comes from a Kanas family with a history of drug dealing. Clearly she wrote this absolutely breathtaking story with some deep understanding of the “have-not” American culture. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that she probably knows some stories that are eerily similar.
“I liked learning things. How numbers worked together to explain the stars. How molecules made the world. All the ugly and wonderful things people had done in the last two thousand years”.
Keeping in mind how challenging this topical matter is, I think one of the important themes in the story is that life is not perfect, with ideal things that happen in every place. The way I am going to justify the outcome of Wavy and Kellen is by the quote above. If you as a reader are most uncomfortable with the child-adult romantic relationship in this story, I think it deserves a second look. The child abuse that Wavy and brother Donal experience at the hands of their parents is so shameful, and it’s widespread across North America in REAL LIFE. I think that Ms. Greenwood captures it all: the loneliness, how they cope, and finally how it forms their adult relationships. Villainizing Kellen would be the wrong thing to do here. Is he a hero? Nah. But is he supposed to be?
Aside from the content of this novel itself, you absolutely cannot discount the writing in this novel. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is written in a sharp style, with realism and first point of view characters that change through the story. It’s captivating and suspenseful to the point where readers are racing to turn the pages and staying up late (or past our lunch breaks….) to finish. As an added bonus, the novel even spans a few genres with a murder-mystery and the romance (albeit a verboten one). Honestly, 2017 & 2018 have been such good reading years that I have had to adjust my scale. Fortunately, this book is one of the ones that re-defines what is a 5* read to me. If you want to feel a lot of emotions, this book is a great one to pick up.
As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. Struggling to raise her little brother, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible “adult” around. She finds peace in the starry Midwestern night sky above the fields behind her house. One night everything changes when she witnesses one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold, wreck his motorcycle. What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things that life has to offer.