Title: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Genre: Historical (70s, 80s), Fiction
Length: 353 pages
Book Rating: B+
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley
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 won’t soon forget, Bryn Greenwood’s All the Ugly and Wonderful Things challenges all we know and believe about love.
Set against a bleak and desolate landscape of dysfunction, abuse and neglect, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is nevertheless a captivating, albeit occasionally uncomfortable, novel that culminates in forbidden love. Although this story may not appeal to all readers, it is a testament to Bryn Greenwood’s incredible skill as an author that she manages to turn a relationship that is considered unpalatable and unacceptable into a powerful and riveting love story.
Wavonna “Wavy” Quinn is the daughter of a meth cooker and a drug addicted mom suffering from mental illness who have both spent time in jail. During her mother Val’s incarceration when Wavy is five years old, she experiences a “normal” life for the first time, but unfortunately, as soon as Val is paroled, she regains custody of her daughter and her baby son, Donal. While life with Val is much improved as she adheres to her treatment plan, when Wavy’s father Liam re-enters the picture, the family moves to the isolated farm where Liam runs his drug lab. Life continues to go downhill for Wavy as she cares for baby Donal while her mom gives into her addiction and continues to experience the highs, lows and delusional thoughts from her untreated mental illness(es). Liam uses his good looks to charm the women who work for him and although he is spends little time with his family, when he is around, he is both physically and emotionally abusive to both Val and Wavy. Life becomes more bearable for Wavy when she is eight years old and she meets much older Jesse Joe Kellen. The bond between them is unshakable and by the time she enters her early teen years, their feelings for one another have begun to cross into romantic territory.
Forced to grow up entirely way too fast, Wavy is heartbreakingly sympathetic character who takes her mother’s wild rants to heart. With a host of inexplicable habits that horrify and confound the people around her, she says little and puts up with abuse and neglect that no one, let alone a child, should ever have to endure. Therefore, it is not at all surprising when she becomes completely enamored by Kellen. Although Kellen is an ex-con and a low-level criminal, he is the only person in Wavy’s life to show any kindness, care or concern for her well-being. In the midst of chaos, Kellen is a stabilizing force who ensures Wavy continues her education and provides many of the basics she needs in order to care for herself and her brother. Entirely enrapt with the one person who provides her unconditional love and comfort , Wavy’s innocent affection for Kellen gradually blossoms into love as she enters her early teen years.
Kellen’s past is almost as tragic as Wavy’s yet he remains kind-hearted and caring despite his abusive childhood and his criminal background. He is immediately drawn to Wavy and his interest in her is completely innocent and above reproach for the first several years of their relationship. Although he is a high school dropout, he is a skilled mechanic who easily recognizes Wavy’s above average intelligence. Taking her under his wing, Kellen takes his role as her protector seriously as he makes sure she attends school and steps in to assist her wherever she needs his help.
Spanning fifteen years, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is written from multiple points of view, including Wavy’s and Kellen’s. While it seems impossible to believe, the evolution of Wavy and Kellen’s relationship into a taboo romance is natural and believable, albeit somewhat disturbing to outsiders looking in (and readers). Although somewhat uncomfortable once the story moves into sexual territory, the scenes between Wavy and Kellen are non-gratuitous and tastefully written. Wavy is rather precocious and since her world is full of inappropriate relationships, she sees absolutely no reason she should not love or desire Kellen. Older yet damaged and emotionally stunted, Kellen is taken off guard by his shifting emotions for Wavy and in his defense, he does try hard to keep their relationship platonic. Just as his plan for their future begins to come together, Wavy’s parents careen toward a disastrous end that threatens to tear Kellen and Wavy apart permanently.
Raw, gritty and dark, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is one of those novels that grabs a reader by the heart and never lets go. Bryn Greenwood is a phenomenally gifted storyteller who does not hesitate to delve into controversial or difficult subject matter. An amazingly gusty risk that I am so glad she decided to take because Wavy and Kellen’s story is an incredible journey that is heartrending yet unexpectedly uplifting. An enthralling novel that might be considered taboo, but ultimately speaks to power of love.