All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood (2016)
Fiction | 1970s
A beautiful and provocative love story between two unlikely people and the hard-won relationship that elevates them above the Midwestern meth lab backdrop of their lives.
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. A powerful novel you wont soon forget, Bryn Greenwood’s All the Ugly and Wonderful Things challenges all we know and believe about love.
Goodreads | Amazon
pooled ink Review:
This story…how on earth it was pitched and published is beyond me. Go ahead if you’ve read it before and try telling someone what it’s about. Try to summarize it without leaving the heart of it out and without horrifying the listener. The official blurb is carefully crafted for a blunt synopsis would be shocking. When I first heard what it was about I immediately recoiled, but the book had such a distinctly positive rating that I stepped back and decided Fine. Convince me.
The foremost characters in the story are Wavy and Kellen. They share their first kiss when she’s about 9 and he’s about 22. Have you recoiled?
We begin the story meeting Wavy and despite being 5-ish years old she’s as far removed from a typical child as could be. Wavy is intelligent, self-reliant, fierce in protecting her boundaries, and she’s also silent. Except with those very very few she’s safe with. Throughout the whole book it’s difficult to really grasp her character. The dichotomy between child and adult that has somehow become fused to form Wavy, lover of stars and daughter of drug addicts. But yes, let’s get back to that kiss…
I think when most people hear “romance” or “love story” they fixate on the sexual aspect and obviously in this context that’s truly horrifying. But as Kellen says, “That’s not the only thing love means”. People forget that loving someone is so so much more than that part, in fact it might be the smallest piece of a relationship because if you give it too much importance then what happens if a tragedy or circumstance takes that away from you? Do you abandon them for someone else? Do you accept being abandoned for someone else? You marry someone because you love their soul. It’s very important to know that this was not a romantic love that ignited from a sexual foundation. Oh it’s still uncomfortable and had my face etched into a fierce frown of recoiling reluctance when they did kiss *shudders violently*, but it is simply important to note that little yet crucial detail. That it started quietly and slowly from two lost souls crossing paths by chance and simply seeking the other’s kindness. (You’re allowed to remain disgusted, of course, I’m only saying that you can at least rest knowing he never sexualized her that way. Also they don’t go “all the way” until she’s 21 though it would’ve happened sooner if they’d managed to get married when she was 14 before sh*t hit the fan).
It is utterly vital that Kellen’s POV is included throughout the story. Vital. We see how he’s drawn to her as a protector when he sees the abuse and neglect of her home and how that grows into a friendship. No one cares about Wavy and no one cares about Kellen. They are two abandoned souls who find each other. It’s easy to see how Wavy could develop a crush on Kellen, even fall in love with him. What is less comprehensible is how Kellen, an adult, could possibly fall in love romantically with Wavy. But since we get his crucial POV, we see that he doesn’t. Not nearly the way it sounds when summarized. He loved her, but not in any sort of crude or romantic way. He simply…loved her. He was always aware of what was right and wrong and fighting whether to follow society’s protective standards or his own evolving emotions. When they kiss that first time, he’s rather shocked by the revelation and continues to try and keep some boundaries to avoid, well, a crime. Oh it’s still ick, but it’s easy to get pulled into their bubble. The way they care for each other exemplifies what a relationship should be like and it’s honestly so sweet, and caring, and honest, and simple, and true, and… But the fact remains that she was a child. Like a child child. Fortunately although she’s willing and interested in speeding things up, mimicking the adult “role models” around her, he’s in no rush too aware that she’s not only young but precious to him. They simply love each other and find comfort in that, retreating into that bubble away from the horrors of their world.
Important also is Wavy’s POV so we see precisely the amount of agency she has in their relationship. Too also the occasional POVs from various people outside of their bubble, from strangers to allies and enemies, to grasp a deeper understanding of both Wavy and Kellen as individuals as well as their observations of them as a pair. It’s so easy to remain trapped in the bubble of a pair and their narrow, fixated views of the other. The broader view of those various POVs cannot be understated in the role it plays for the story.
This is a very complicated book. The heart of it is the relationship between Wavy and Kellen and despite its sweetness it’s lined in a bitter taste of wrong. Is their relationship right or wrong? Legally it’s wrong, socially it’s wrong,… Ya know, I don’t think the characters or even the book is asking that at all. I think it’s a story with a small light in a vast storm of unyielding darkness. I’m not saying I’m onboard with their relationship origin story (no matter how mature she was for her age, she was still a child and that actually does mean something psychologically, developmentally, etc.). I am, however, finding myself at the conclusion of the book with its hard fought happy ending…understanding their relationship. I hesitate to even say it’s a case of special circumstances, a unique scenario, a particular case… It’s an intriguing book, not only for the controversial story, but because it forces you to wrestle with every instinct, every stance, every thought. You might not change those thoughts, but it will force you to wrestle with them perhaps just a bit.
For me, I need their platonic friendship to have lasted longer, allowed her to grow older. I have a feeling Kellen would have certainly waited forever for Wavy. He simply loved her and that was that and it could look however she needed it to. So despite the wrestling, I still ended up on the side of “No.”, but I do…I do understand I think. Besides, they’re not asking for anyone’s approval are they.
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is a title of poetic accuracy for this tale of controversial love found like a North Star in a home of betraying darkness. Where love should have been, it abused, and where it should have never existed, it saved. For better or worse, this book is undeniably a love story.
P.S. I’m not giving it a star rating because honestly I have no idea what to give it. The writing though was certainly towards the 5 stars side.
Meet Bryn Greenwood!
Website | Goodreads
BRYN GREENWOOD is a fourth-generation Kansan and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer. She is the NYT bestselling author of The Reckless Oath We Made, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Lie Lay Lain, and Last Will. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas.