Have you ever picked up a book, thinking, “Yeah, I’ve heard this one’s weird,” and halfway through it you’re like, “Weird doesn’t even begin to describe it”? That was me reading “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.”
When the book jacket says Wavy forms an “unusual friendship” with one of her drug dealer father’s associates, I should have seen the writing on the wall. Unusual is a gross understatement. And I mean gross as in … I know these are fictional characters, but I really want to call the cops.
The only beauty (and I mean the ONLY beauty) I find in their relationship is that, well, here are these two people who have come to believe that they don’t belong to anyone, and no one and nothing belongs to them. Never mind the fact that Kellen is old enough to be Wavy’s father. Initially, it’s really sweet how he takes care of her … buys groceries, makes sure Wavy gets to and from school, etc.
As the two of them grew closer, I realized where this was going but it was like a train wreck I couldn’t avoid watching. I suppose that, were I in this situation, it would be hard not to fall in love. Kellen is the only person in Wavy’s everyday life who actually looks out for her, and being in her shoes I think I’d also have a pretty warped idea of what’s appropriate and what isn’t.
It takes some real intestinal fortitude to write about romance between a young girl and a grown man. Greenwood’s bio says she’s “the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer,” so I’d imagine she didn’t have to do a great deal of research when creating some of the disturbing scenes in this book.
And I’m sorry, I realize there is so much more to this book than Kellen and Wavy’s relationship, but I just couldn’t get past my negative feelings about that aspect of it. I spent several days trying to wrap my mind around this book but I just keep coming back to the part that bothers me most.
Putting my tunnel vision aside, I think a big theme of this book is the challenge of deciding, at what point do you wash your hands of a family member whose life is going down the drain? Brenda loves her sister Val (Wavy’s mom) too much to look the other way, if for no other reason than to see that Wavy and her little brother Donal are taken care of.
And then there’s the tension between Brenda and her husband, who would prefer they have nothing to do with Val and her circus of crazy. There is no such thing as a non-dysfunctional family … in less extreme terms, I can understand where Brenda is coming from.
As much as Kellen and Wavy’s creepy relationship soured me on this book, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to read it again, focusing more on the other characters and how they interact and develop. But life is too short and there are too many other books I haven’t read yet, so I doubt I’ll revisit this one.
I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone not to read this book, but it obviously isn’t for the squeamish. Perhaps take a cue from my experience, and go into it with a “bigger picture” mentality.
About the author
Bryn Greenwood is a fourth-generation Kansan, and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer. She earned an MA from Kansas State University and continues to work in academia as an administrator. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The New York Times, Chiron Review, Kansas Quarterly, Karamu, and The Battered Suitcase. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas. Visit her at http://www.bryngreenwood.com. -book jacket of “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things