All the Ugly & Wonderful Things – Bryn Greenwood
Final Thoughts: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Brace yourself: this will be a lengthy one wrought with spoilers because I can’t review this story without discussing all of the finer points.
Bryn Greenwood tells a story of Wavonna Quinn, an eight-year old who is continually abused by her parents and forced to raise herself and her young brother Donal basically on her own. Her folks run a meth lab, and while her dad, Liam, galavants around with his rotating crowd of female hangers-on, her mother, Val, shows violent signs of an emotional disorder. Val often tells Wavonna that no one can touch her because they are dirty, and often made Wavonna bathe in bleach and scalding water until “her skin bubbled.” Wavonna responds to this abuse with fierce independence, a reluctance to eat (except secretly out of the trash), and willing muteness. One day, she sees her father’s friend Kellan wreck his motorcycle and rushes to help. They begin a friendship in which 20-something-year-old Kellan takes on the paternal role, compassionately doing all he can to support Wavy and Donal in the midst of their chaotic home. As Wavy grows older, she begins to think she is romantically in love with Kellan, and as their friendship escalates into more, they are faced with their age-difference, their boundaries, and societal judgement.
I am going to have a lot of trouble reviewing this one. I’d like to review two concepts separately: the book, firstly, and the message, secondly.
I am a sucker for a good backwoods, Americana gothic, and Greenwood has absolutely mastered the tone of such. The familial drama is so tangible and well-developed that I found myself infuriated and emotionally responsive 100% of the time. Similarly, she has crafted a romance in such a way that my heart felt heavy at the thought of Wavy and Kellan being separated. I was rooting for them, which brings me to my second point:
I wish I wasn’t rooting for them. When Wavy is 13, she is completely in love with Kellan. He has been taking care of her, and showing her what love truly means, but mostly from a paternal role. As their story shifts, he becomes much less paternal, and she becomes a lovesick puppy. One night, she is eager to please Kellan, and show him that she is the only one he should be with. After looking through adult magazines and conversing with her father’s female escorts, she believes she is ready for the next level. Kellan tries to stop the momentum of their physicality, but fails, and Wavy gives him a hand job.
After this, the book continues to advance this motion, even though Kellan knows it is wrong. They don’t have actual sex while she is a minor, but after that point, their relationship is never the same. He even gives her an engagement ring, despite the disapproval of his peers. Eventually, after a decade-long legal battle, Wavy is still in love with her childhood guardian, and she hunts him down. Long story short, they end up together and happily ever after.
My Feels: My feels are complicated. At first instinct, I want to hate this book and what it stands for. We are encouraged to root for a relationship between a child and an adult. We are pushed to feel sympathy for a man who took advantage of a traumatized 13 year-old girl. And the worst part? I totally do root for them and feel sympathy. But I don’t want to. I commend the strength of Greenwood’s storytelling, because clearly, she roped me into feeling everything in opposition to my values. However, I can’t help but question the purpose of this story.
Lots of reviewers are praising this as a beautiful, troubled romance. I question the use of the word “troubled” instead of “problematic.” I don’t think it’s societally healthy to view this as a good romance story. If you’re viewing it that way, I might even question your ethics.
My take on this is that Kellan was clearly in a role of power. He was the sole consistent provider for Wavy, and the only person showing her any form of love when she had known none. Wavy is clearly an abused child; she isn’t capable of distinguishing romantic love from familial love. She has seen her parents have sex with each other and with strangers. Sex is not foreign to her; love is. After feeling gratitude and a closeness to Kellan, the man who is giving her the only comfort in her life, it makes sense that she would confuse these signals. Kellan, thus, is in a vast position of power, and it is his responsibility to channel that power. What does he do? He takes advantage of her willingness, her innocence, and her neediness.
Now, we are supposed to feel bad for Kellan, because he tells us time and time again that he knows this is wrong, that he wants to stop Wavy without hurting her, and that he genuinely cares about her wellbeing. And I believe that. But, here’s the thing: I could say I genuinely want to lose weight and be a healthier person; if I eat a whole pizza in a sitting, I’ve still failed. Kellan failed Wavy. I don’t care how much he tried, and I don’t even care that they ended up happily married together; he still failed to maintain boundaries with a 13-year-old.
My dilemma is furthered by the author’s comments on her work.
- She has claimed that, even though there is romance in the book, this is not a romance book. She gets brownie points from me for this.
- She was raised by a drug dealer and attracted to older men, so though this isn’t autobiographical, there is a deep personal relevance. I can also relate to this point.
- She asks the reader to consider how we raise children: we say that children aren’t able to legally consent to the things Wavy does, in fact, consent to. But yet, as adults, we also tell them to the ends of the earth that they have to do what we say, share when we say “share”, and act how we tell them to act. Now, I think examining the consent of minors in sexual encounters is extraordinarily shaky ground, but something tells me she has a point.
- She asks of the content: “Did it make you uncomfortable, or were you made uncomfortable by the fact that you weren’t really all that uncomfortable?” I don’t know if she’s trying to out us all as pedophiles, but is also a fair point.
I have to purely admit: I loved this book. I didn’t read it as a romance; I read it as a story. I think, with this novel, it is incredibly crucial to remain critical, even if you find yourself feeling good about Kellan and Wavy’s relationship. I am not cheering them on because I like them together; I am able to cheer them on because I am happy to see a broken, young girl find a caring human to raise her up and love her in a respectful way. Taking away all my personal convictions and judgments, I love the tone, the characters, the plot, the pacing, and the conversations this book starts.
Greenwood has also stated that we often reject stories that we are too uncomfortable to hear, and that many readers have found this to be the case with this book. I agree with her in this; these stories happen, and it is unfair and damaging to the people living them to not tell them. We often look to music, books, art, etc. to be reflections of our own moral parameters, but not ever story or art form exists to be a role model. We are allowed to have our own opinions and take away different experiences from the art that we engage with, but it doesn’t always mean that the art shouldn’t exist. Yes, this book’s content is problematic for me. It does not sit with my sense of ethics and I don’t believe the direction the characters took is a message we should spread. But maybe, it was never intended to be a message. Bryn Greenwood might not be a prophet for ethics, but she is a prophet for exposure. These stories happen in real life, and just because we aren’t okay with the moral compass, it doesn’t always mean the stories shouldn’t be told. I think that this book is a significant creation, because everyone will have a different, but incredibly passionate response to the content. As uncomfortable as I am with the idea of a happy story of an adult man falling in love with a child, I’m impressed by her powerful narrative, and I am blown away by the amount of feelings I have in response. I will never remember this book as a good romantic story, even if I cheered the romance on. I can’t promise anyone that they will have a positive experience with this book or the message it delivers, but it encourages discussion like no book I’ve ever read before, and for that, it will always have a place on my shelf.