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Book Review – All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

Wow. 

I did not expect to like this book as much as I did. Though, I’m guessing that’s probably everybody’s first reaction when they pick it up. I can imagine it would be a bit suspicious if you were like–oh, this sounds like my kind of love story. 

I don’t know if I want to describe this as a love story so much as I want to deem it a thriller. It was just as romantic as it was thrilling, sort of a combination of the two. Crude and endearing, highly disturbing at times, my heart was practically leaping out of my chest by the time I was three-quarters of the way through the book. 

I made the mistake of staying up all night long last night and NOT finishing the book. I don’t recommend doing that–you might have some wicked dreams and/or trouble falling asleep.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things tells the enthralling story of Wavy Quinn, the daughter of a drug dealer, and Jesse Joe Kellen, one of his mules, over the span of about fifteen years. The two are thirteen years apart and defy all odds as star-crossed lovers to stay together, but their relationship is tested again and again by those who don’t understand it. And when something gruesome outside of their control occurs, it begs the question: are they really meant to be together forever? 

I had a hard time with the romance at first. I’m not gonna lie. You know that look you get on your face, and that feeling you get in your stomach, when you’re watching something that just makes you feel like your skin is crawling? That was me for a good portion of this book. 

This book is told through like fifteen different perspectives. It takes true mastery to put yourself in so many different minds, and keep them separate. The author, Bryn Greenwood, is a true professional.

She didn’t make it overly crude. Even though the material was crude. Young kids living with an abusive mother, their father, his many mistresses, on a compound that revolved around the cooking of meth? It could have been way worse. But she wrote with a rawness and a poignant hand that never held anything back, but also left a lot to the imagination. When you have eight-year-olds talking about watching people “fuck” and attributing someone’s silliness to being “stoned,” you’re gonna be a little disturbed. But not overly. She didn’t make the read unbearable, as hard as it was to digest the substance in the pages. 

Here’s what I think happened: Kellen went earlier than me and got in bed with Wavy. What made me mad is she didn’t want to talk. She let me get in bed and she hugged me, but she didn’t say anything. And she was naked under the covers. I felt her boobies against my arm.

It made me question why we do the things we do a bit. Why we step in and pretend to know what’s best for someone else. Why we think we can assume a young girl can’t take care of herself. Why we think the worst of a large man with a flat face. Why we make assumptions and never break stereotypes. 

I hated every person that thought they were doing what they thought was best for Wavy. Though in a similar situation, I don’t know what I would have done if I had seen my niece (don’t have one) falling in love with a man this book regularly described as “brusque.” A man who was at times violent and transporting meth across state lines. A man who told the little girl he killed two men. 

I loved that this book shattered the stereotype of romantic love. How it should be between two people similar in age, background, color. It sort of ripped the stereotype apart and made you wonder whether you had been looking for the wrong person all these years. 

It was so masterful. It was so beautiful. How Kellen and Wavy bonded over the stars and their constellations. The stars are these striking things that you can’t really touch but are always there shining down on you. And I sort of felt like that was how Kellen and Wavy were to each other. Always there in the dark shining down on each other. Always keenly aware of their relationship, which was sorted just as well as the constellations. Because they weren’t messy or reckless, sure there were a few moments that I didn’t find as romantic as I would have if the two were closer in age, but there was a classiness to it at the same time. A well-sorted system. 

The most beautiful moments of this book happened in the meadow I think–Kellen and Wavy’s place. It was sort of like Bryn used the stars and the meadow to break up the rest of the tragedy. To give you that moment of clarity you needed to stomach whatever terrible substance was coming at you next. Plus, the writing that occurred during the meadow scenes was so beautiful, I reread each passage multiple times.

When I spread my arms out, she laid down next to me and rested her head on my arm. I felt so weird inside my skin, like the stars were pressing down into the earth, pressing Wavy’s head down on me. Part of that was the week, I knew, but it was the stars, too. All that light traveling from so far away.

She let me play with her hair, and after a while, I petted her bare shoulders. I wondered how it felt to her with my hand being so rough and her being so soft. To me, it was like all the skin on my palms coming awake after being asleep. Same way I felt lying under the sky at night. The stars rubbing across me, making static electricity.

Summer had so many tricks. The nights lasted longer than the days, even though the angle of the Earth’s axis meant that was impossible. The night couldn’t be longer, but summer made it seem that way. Summer sneaked time fro me, taking whole minutes from English class in March, ten whole minutes from a boring Thursday in April. Summer stole time to give me another hour under the stars with Kellen.

The characters were all so well-done. Every single one of them. Wavy and her habits, which stemmed from her early childhood, were kept up with so well, that was what made me feel like crying. I love when an author honors the devastation of childhood by making the little habits acquired from something horrifying into little ticks on their internal clock. Something that just happens, helps make them up and push them forward. Bryn never shoved them in our face, she reminded us kindly throughout the book about Wavy and Wavy’s things. I never felt like I wanted Wavy to talk more–one of her ticks being not talking–and I never felt frustrated with her for not eating. I didn’t think it was completely outrageous that she didn’t like being touched. I wasn’t confused by her refusal to claim anything as her own. And I sort of thought it was all really beautiful. Which is weird to say. But it just came across delicate and refined, like this was a character, who had come from tremendous hurt, protecting herself. It was like watching a painter decorate a canvas. 

I didn’t regret kicking my electric typewriter down the stairs. Aunt Brenda had given it to me for my high school graduation, and whether she intended it or not, gift take up space in your heart. I needed that space now.

I particularly loved Amy’s point of view–Wavy’s cousin. I got to see Wavy growing up the most through her eyes. I felt like I was in their bedroom with them gossiping about sex, rolling their eyes at Amy’s sister, Leslie. I could see Wavy the most when she was with Amy. How she was really rebellious, promiscuous, but smart and driven. She wasn’t any one thing with Amy like she was with everyone else. She was thoughtful and crazy, shy and demanding, sneaky and innocent. She was a million things with Amy and I could feel their love for each other. I could feel it. 

I also loved Wavy’s college roommate, Renee, whom doesn’t come until the last quarter of the book. And I was sort of thinking how is it possible another perspective could really make a difference in this already outrageously incredible book, but god, I would have missed her POV if we hadn’t gotten it. She was perhaps the most honest and relatable character out of all of them.

I did my spiel. Jill was my best friend. Smart, pretty, All-State volleyball champion. Killed by a drunk driver our senior year. I cried. I’m ashamed when I look back at how I played that game, because I barely knew Jill. I once had a history class with her. When I went to college I made up this story about my best friend dying, because it made me more interesting.

Right then, I realized I’d been going about things the wrong way. You make people interested in you by keeping secrets, not by passing them out like candy at Halloween.

You like never expect Wavy to be a normal girl, but then you throw Renee into the chaos and she sort of tethers you to the reality that despite what you may think about Wavy and how she’s so odd and weird, she’s actually a living, breathing human being, who is so deep in the gray, your black and white POV just makes you feel ashamed. 

And then there was Kellen and Wavy’s relationship, which I didn’t get enough of but at times got way too much of. They aged each other in the most beautiful way. He made her more feminine, but still let her be her own person. 

I didn’t kill him, but I made him beg, sweaty and gasping. He didn’t even beg for anything. He was just begging, with my name in between. “Please, Wavy, please,” until his hips lifted off the quilt and he came. A strange word for it, like he was leaving somewhere else and arriving in the meadow with me.

It is hard to understand. I don’t understand how a fully grown man falls in love with a little girl, but now I know not to judge it. But then at the same time, it’s always how can you know? How can you know someone’s intentions are pure. Unless you’re in their head like we so often were in Kellen’s, you can’t know. It’s easier to protect the little girl than to think about whether you should have the rest of your life. 

I guess their romance left me kind of dumbfounded. However beautiful it was, however perfect it seemed like the blanket of stars decorating their sky, it was still really disturbing. It’s a different time, the seventies were more forgiving of huge age differences like that, but here in the modern world, I don’t know how that would come across. I think I’d have a hard time supporting it even though I was fucking screaming at Wavy’s aunt for trying to separate the two of them. 

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SPOILER ALERT:

I did not expect a happy ending. I am still dying over the ending. I’m not a cryer, I didn’t see what there was to cry over at the end, but I did feel like this sense of relief, like it all came full circle. 

With a book so heavily weighed down by tragedy, I totally thought Bryn was going to just devastate us at the end. But she didn’t, and that’s what has me thinking this was really more of a love story than anything else. 

38/38

Because this book changed me in the best way. And it might be the best book I’ve read this year.

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