I read All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood, as part of my office book club.
In Greenwood’s novel, she explores flawed characters, dysfunctional families, inappropriate relationships, sex, drugs, child abuse, murder, friendship, and love. It sounds like there are more ugly things than wonderful things, in my opinion.
The main character, Wavy, has a terrible life. She is neglected, watching her parents deal and take drugs, have sex, and fight. she has to care for her baby brother when she is just a child herself. She has to cook her own meals, clean the house, and get herself to school. She is told that she’s dirty and everything around her is dirty, so she develops some unhealthy habits of not speaking, not eating unless no one is around, and not letting anyone touch her. She doesn’t trust anyone and doesn’t understand rules.
Her father’s friend/co-worker/assistant/mechanic, Kellen, comes into her life when she is just eight years old. He is much older, but he is the one person she grows to trust and love. She lets him touch her, she speaks to him, and she lets him take care of her. She lets him love her. They have a strong bond that turns into a physical love, particularly as she gets older. But not much older. She is not even a teenager when they begin to make their relationship public and tell people they’re dating. He buys her an engagement ring and promises to marry her.
It’s then that her life goes terribly awry – if it wasn’t messed up enough already.
As I read this book, I was incredibly uncomfortable with Wavy and Kellen’s relationship. He was so much older than her that I felt he should have had more sense than to fall in love with an 8-year-old girl. I can’t actually imagine that someone in their 20’s would even find a child attractive. It is incomprehensible to me that he saw this tiny little girl and began a relationship with her, even if it started out as platonic at first.
I could understand his empathy. He wanted to care for her and “save” her from her neglectful parents. He wanted to swoop in and save the day – take her school, feed her, help her. But when it started to go beyond that, why wouldn’t he stop it? Why would he allow himself to sleep over in her bed? Why would he let her say that she loved him? Why would he let her kiss him? He’s old enough to know better.
In all the varying narrators and nuance of the storyline, I felt that maybe we were missing the background and history of Kellen’s life. As a central character in the story, I would have liked to get to know Kellen more. How did he grow up? What were his life experiences? What led him to be the type of man who fell in love with an 8-year-old?
Whatever his background, it’s clear that Wavy has this odd emotional attachment to Kellen that she equates with love. And this situation then begs the question – does she love her parents? She is upset when they die, but is she upset because she loves them or because she knows that her life will change? She may not have the best life, but at least Kellen is in it and she knows what to expect. Her parents don’t take care of her, she doesn’t trust her father, her father doesn’t want her, she’s afraid of her mother. Never in the book does she act like she has an emotional connection to either parent.
I read an interview with Bryn Greenwood on a book blog, and she mentioned that she wrote this book based on “what she knows.” There are parts of this book that were taken from real life. There are real people who live this way, who have dysfunctional families, and abuse their children. And it makes me sick to think that this kind of life is reality for some children. You read news headlines these days that say that people are calling the cops on parents who let their children walk to the bus stop or play in the park alone, calling them neglectful and saying it’s child abuse. And then you have actual, real cases of child abuse, like this one. Real cases of neglect, where the parents are passed out on drugs and can’t wake up to feed their children. Where are the people calling the cops on these parents?
In this book, Wavy’s aunt tries to take Wavy in at a few different points in her life and it doesn’t work out. Wavy’s aunt can tell that there is something going on at home, that’s she’s been scarred somehow, and that the way she behaves isn’t normal. And yet, she selfishly says that taking in Wavy is too disruptive to her own life and her own daughters. She says she can’t handle her, that’s she too disobedient and too difficult. The aunt clearly knows that something is wrong, and yet doesn’t do anything to help. She doesn’t investigate Wavy’s situation until it’s too late.
In some ways, Wavy is already acting like an adult, at 8 years old. Taking care of herself and her brother, it doesn’t seem like she needs much help. And yet, emotionally, she is clearly a child. She acts like a child emotionally, far longer than you’d think she should. Even when she is in college and reunites with Kellen, I still see her as a child, not thinking rationally, not understanding consequences.
Even if these situations make you cringe, this book was beautifully written and captivating from the very beginning. It was an interesting book to get you to think about these issues – drug abuse, neglect, family, relationships – and consider that they actually happen and there are people who really deal with these things every day.