All the Ugly and Wonderful Things
By Bryn Greenwood
Summary: As the daughter of a drug dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. It’s safer to keep her mouth shut and stay out of sight. Struggling to raise her little brother, Donal, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible adult around. Obsessed with the constellations, she finds peace in the starry night sky above the fields behind her house, until one night her star gazing causes an accident. After witnessing his motorcycle wreck, she forms an unusual friendship with one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold.
By the time Wavy is a teenager, her relationship with Kellen is the only tender thing in a brutal world of addicts and debauchery. When tragedy rips Wavy’s family apart, a well-meaning aunt steps in, and what is beautiful to Wavy looks ugly under the scrutiny of the outside world. Kellen may not be innocent, but he is the fixed point in Wavy and Donal’s chaotic universe. Instead of playing it safe, Wavy has to learn to fight for Kellen, for her brother, and for herself.
Source: I borrowed a copy from my local library on Kindle.
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I joined an actual in person book club in my new area and hit it off with all the members who showed up and we got to talking about readers and tough subjects and reading books that make you uncomfortable. Everyone in the book club recommended this book and something I HAD to read, but most importantly, I had to let them know what I thought about it.
I LOVE books that make people uncomfortable. Give me violence, give me taboo, give me anything that challenges the norm. Books should make you feel something and I just don’t understand the types of readers (who seem to be growing exponentially) who demand warnings and don’t want to read things that make them uncomfortable or be exposed to anything awful. I crave the books that challenge me in some type of way or go beyond what is normal and show me the terrible and screwed up things that make up this world. I’m not a reader who reads only happy things to escape the real world, so maybe that’s why.
So All the Ugly and Wonderful Things should have been on my radar long before now, but I’d never even heard of it! Everyone’s vague but emotionally charged reactions to this book and their insistence that I go read it made me so excited to jump in.
The storytelling was fantastic!
The author was able to weave a story that immediately grabbed me. There were multiple POVs, but I knew the main focus would be Wavy, a young and strange girl from a broken home. Each POV/chapter would end with me wanting to know more. Usually, POV shifts drive me crazy because it takes me out of the story, but the author knew exactly how to make the story flow while switching narrators that expanded upon the story without taking you out of it. Every transition was smooth. The book is an incredible example of how to tell a story, how showing vs telling impacts a story, and how to effectively write.
As far as the writing in terms of the subject matter, I did not think the writing was manipulative. The author never made me feel as if she dictated what emotions I should be feeling or steered me in any sort of direction. It was laid out in a beautiful way that gently nudged me to simply feel, keep reading, and go with the flow. Because of the POV switches, sometimes the a narrator would be describing something that happened with disgust or outrage, while we got another narrator who spoke of the same event differently, generally allowing the reader to make their own mind up about the events.
It’s tough to describe, but the storytelling definitely exceeded my expectations.
A lot of people will not like this book. It may be an immediate DNF with a ton of outrage. A lot of people will continue to read it and then be even more outraged as the events unfold. But for those who don’t mind a little bit of controversy, it will definitely make you think about how you feel about subjects you may have previously thought you stood firm on.
Essentially, the author weaved a story about how the world is not black and white. As much as I was uncomfortable and at some points a little grossed out, I found myself rooting for the characters, hoping for a happy ending that few would define as acceptable. The book made me think about preconceived notions, what love is, and how our lives really can seem like a series of decisions both in and out of your control that impact what happens to you and what kind of person you become. It was also about how people lie to themselves a little about their convictions.
I closed the book feeling that whatever Kellen and Wavy had was real. I closed the book arguing with myself about how my previous statement is outrageous and wrong. I didn’t need to read the hoards of 1 and 2 star reviews as my conscious was already yelling the same things to me. I know. It’s wrong to excuse this. But I stand by what I said. It was real, whatever love they had, however wrong it was.
I loved that the author also included other situations, probably to further confuse the emotions and moral compass of the reader. We can shout about what’s right and how any reader in their right mind could possibly rate this book anything but negatively, but let’s not ignore the other things in the story that weren’t right that none of us bat an eyelash about on a daily basis.
We had Wavy’s roommate in college who had an affair with her professor, an example of a true abuse of a position of authority, but a more socially acceptable transgression.
We had Amy, growing up in a good home, but wavering in her convictions, while Wavy contrasted her character by growing up in a broken home, but knowing herself and what she stood by. Wavy’s personality kind of ruins the argument that she didn’t know any better or was easily influenced.
We had Donal, who was allowed to live with his biological father, despite an awful home life and everyone just assumed he’d be fine, like they did with Wavy.
We had Liam and Val and everything they did to themselves and their kids, putting themselves first and letting them live in filth.
We had Amy’s mom, Brenda, at the helm, ready to tear down Kellen for what he did, vocal about how he ruined Wavy’s childhood while she neglected Wavy in the moments that really would’ve mattered. If anyone could’ve given Wavy her childhood, it was Brenda. She could’ve intervened at any time, but it was “too difficult” to care for Wavy. Grandma stepped in until she couldn’t anymore and Brenda convinced herself that Wavy would be fine, never really digging too deep or even see who was taking Wavy to school everyday or making sure Wavy ate, huffing about the times Wavy’s mom dropped her off with Brenda for the weekend. Everyone just let Wavy grow up in a broken home, out of sight and out of mind, fully knowing Wavy’s mom was not capable of doing it correctly, seeing the state of the kids whenever they were dropped off without warning.
So while we are all trying to wrestle with the wrongness of Kellen and Wavy, why was everything else okay? Why was no one ever checking up on Wavy, how did they call through the cracks in the system if Wavy’s aunt was SO CONCERNED? Where was Brenda’s concern for Wavy’s childhood innocence and ability to be a kid before she knew about Kellen?
It was beyond ridiculous and I can’t help but feel like, despite all the wrong Kellen did, at least there was someone there who truly cared about her and her wellbeing. And I think that’s where the line was blurred for me.
I loved the book for making me go back and forth with myself about what was really right, what I should’ve been rooting for, and what the heck is wrong with me for even thinking about excusing any of it. All while being well written and compelling. Only a truly good book can make you question something like this. Is it wrong? Do I need more information? Am I a terrible person for rooting for something like this? Am I only giving it thought because it’s not real and therefore it’s something I can ponder about? Is the world really a big shade of gray? Can we judge situations without knowing the details? What wrongs are MORE wrong in the world? I don’t know! I’m giving this 5 stars for being compelling, uncomfortable, and for making me really think about who I am a person and what behaviors I would defend or not defend. The author created characters who captivated me enough to root for them, hate them, and overall, just FEEL some type of way about it all.