Review: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things (Spoilers at the End)

At the end of this blog post, there will be a spoiler alert. Everything that precedes that alert is safe to read if you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want anything to be given away. If you have read the book, I’d love for you to read the spoiler section and offer your thoughts in the comments section!

Another book I picked up on the BOTM website in September is All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Kansas author Bryn Greenwood. As a lifetime resident of Kansas, I was excited to discover this publication by a graduate of Kansas State University; an author who not only attended school in my state, but resides in Kansas to this day!

I was also drawn in by the title and extreme Litsy hype over this read. This book seemed to jump out at me all the time — I saw it online, in emails from booksellers, on bookshelves at store. Its title appealed to me immensely: life is really all about the ugly and wonderful things, and I knew I’d find some sort of gem within the pages that I could cherish.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is a somber tale of lives intertwined accidentally in the 1970s Midwest. Eight-year-old Wavy is raised in the pits of meth-lab hell: her mother is an obsessive-compulsive user who is barely capable of maintaining her own existence; her father, a promiscuous man known for his wily charms and forceful backhand; a younger brother, whom Wavy must defend from the horrors of their world.

Before the accident, Wavy knows no such thing as affection or compassion. A highly dysfunctional home life has instilled in Wavy a fear of being “bad” — i.e., transferring her germs to others through touch — and an aversion to eating in front of others. She has come to expect disappointment, fear, and hunger as norms in her world.

After the accident, though, Wavy finds herself in an unusual predicament: for the first time in her life, she begins to interact with a human capable of honesty, responsibility, comfort, and love.

The years that follow the accident unravel to reveal a complex new dynamic, challenging readers to question their ideals of morality, the meaning of family, and those all-too-hasty judgements about those who are raised in dire straights.

This book scooped a nest out i my heart and burrowed way down deep. Greenwood’s prose isn’t much to shake a stick at, but this book isn’t about prose. It’s about unconventional, unconditional love; the underbelly of desperation; and grit.

Rating: 4.5/5 — I can’t say I “loved” the book or that it was “amazing” — read it, and you’ll understand, nor do I plan to recommend it to hordes; but I appreciate the complexity of this work and applaud Greenwood for tackling a subject most wouldn’t dare approach.

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Spoiler Alert! STOP READING NOW if you don’t want the ending ruined!

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Okay . . . let’s get real. I found Wavy’s relationship with Kellen predictable, in the sense that I knew it was coming. From the moment he wrecked his bike and Greenwood described his reaction to this ethereal being, I knew the novel was headed down a road I would probably not enjoy all that much. Having read Nabokov’s Lolita, I didn’t relish the thought of another age-defying relationship.

I was surprised, then, when I kept reading and found myself pulling for Kellen and Wavy. And that freaked me out. Big time.

As much as I wasn’t wowed by Greenwood’s prose, I was blown away by her impeccable depiction of a completely taboo relationship in a manner that was both heart-rending and impossible to fully dismiss. Where Lolita simply felt repulsive and possessive and vindictive, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things seemed — ironically — innocent and tender.

Don’t get me wrong: I did not even remotely enjoy the less-innocent exchanges between Kellen and 14-year-old Wavy. I shuddered often at their semi-sexual (okay, sometimes downright sexual) encounters, which didn’t become any less uncomfortable as I read on. I think it’s worth noting, then, that as uncomfortable as I was reading the passages, one can only imagine how very conflicted Greenwood must have been as she wrote the novel.

When I finished reading — at four in the morning, on a school day, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the story — I needed some time to ruminate over it. I was shaken at the core by Greenwood’s tale, disgusted with myself for being so wholeheartedly obsessed with the Wavy-Kellen reunion that came like a Christmas gift at the end. And yet . . .

I could justify their relationship. Despite every moral fiber of my being straining desperately in the direction of Firm Resolve, I could justify their love for one another, their tender embraces, and their desperate resilience. After all, when a girl like Wavy meets a guy like Kellen — one who will nourish her, and care for her both emotionally and physically, and protect her — how could either of them turn away?

What are your thoughts? Am I headed straight for hell? Or did you, too, experience a tender sort of compassion and heartache as you read?

The Dream(s)

Last night I dreamed one thousand lies.

It started with the death of my brother. First he perished in a twisted ball of metal and fire. I wasn’t there, but it was in me — I felt it in the heart of me. My blind eyes saw the vacant black asphalt reflected in the glassy stare of his coffee-brown eyes. My sleeping arms started at the sudden sting of shattered windshield and we rolled and rolled and rolled together before resting downside up. I did not feel the flames but I watched as ribbons of brilliant yellow-orange devoured his coarse brown hair and freckle-spotted cheeks. This was his first death: quick but agonizing.

Next he died face-up in the basement of a new friend’s house: his lips a faint blue with the dried remains of vomit hidden just behind his teeth. He whispered to me slow, but my ears were asleep and I did not hear words; only incomplete sounds. At least his eyes were closed and guarded by thick black lashes from whatever came next.

Then he was whole, a perfect nuisance with his consciously relaxed posture and arrogant smirk — his stare both burning and jovial at the same time. He was whole, and then there was a hole, in his gut, just off to the side of his navel. From the hole a great scarlet flower bloomed, spreading its virulent leaves in hyperlapse fashion. The flower spread within him, too, and though I could not see at first I soon noticed a curled leaf eking its way out of the part between his lips: brilliant and garish against the dusty rose of his mouth. My phantom hand reached for this flower and instead brushed against the slick surface of a wall.

Painted eggshell and pocked with shallow dings here and there, the mostly-smooth surface seized my arm and led me away. I sat up abruptly, lungs grabbing desperately for real air (not that stuff of dream worlds), and I could finally see.

There were no scarlet flowers, there was no shattering of glass, there was no muffled murmur. Only the tepid air of the enclosed bedroom and the too-loud chirruping of crickets just beyond the narrow wall.