Review of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
I’ve been waiting all year for a book to break my heart, and this is it. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood lives up to its title, showing life in all its light and darkness, all the pain and relief. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is a love story, but I wouldn’t call it a romance novel. It revolves around a girl named Wavonna Quinn, Wavy for short, and her love for Jesse Joe Kellen. This coming-of-age story spans thirteen years, through which Wavy deals with abuse from her parents and psychological trauma as well as the usual trappings of growing up, like school. Throughout these years, Kellen is her rock, her one constant. Sounds pretty standard, right?
The wrench in the works here is that Jesse Joe Kellen is more than ten years Wavy’s senior. Jessie Joe fell in love with Wavy when she was eight years old. But don’t worry (I certainly did). It doesn’t get lewd. Greenwood uses her powerful gift with words to give nuance to the narrative, making All the Ugly and Wonderful Things neither a tragedy nor a romance, but a portrayal of life’s hardness and softness that broke my heart and then tried to gather up the pieces.
The most wonderful part of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is how the characters shine through the prose. The narrative shifts deftly between perspectives, using one perspective per chapter. In one chapter, a teenage Wavy describes the suffering and happiness she sees in others:
“During my junior year, a boy in Amy’s class killed himself. He had terrible acne, purple welts like bee stings all over his face, and he went home from school and hung himself. I could have told him there was no sense in rushing toward being dead. It would find you soon enough, and before it did there were pleasures to make your heart hurt less. If I lay very still in bed at night, I remembered how Grandma’s house smelled. The taste of mint ice cream on Kellen’s tongue. Donal jumping on the bed to wake me up.”
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is not a simple novel with a pat ending. There are no easy fixes. Even after the plot wraps up, none of the characters are unbroken, but it does show us that there are stars in even the darkest sky, tiny pinpoints of light to ease the heartache. In that way, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things shows us what life is like, both painful and extraordinary, full of ugly things certainly, but wonderful things, too.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for my unbiased review.
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