All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

26114135Fiction — print. St. Martin’s Press, 2016. 346 pgs. Library book.

Can you love the way a book is written and yet hate the content of that book? Because that is my reaction to Greenwood’s debut novel about an eight-year-old girl named Wavonna, who bounces from the home of her drug addicted, mentally ill mother to the homes of her aunt and grandmother until she turns thirteen and falls in love with a twenty-four year old named Kellen.

It is the use of “love” in that sentence that gives me pause because this novel is, essentially, the romanticization of statutory rape. Except the novel skirts the legal definition of statutory rape.  Wavonna — who goes by the nickname given to her by Kellen, “Wavy” — performs non-vaginal sex act on Kellen (and he on her), but vaginal intercourse does not occur. No matter what Wavy’s aunt insists on what she saw in Kellen’s place of employment, Wavy’s later testimony during Kellen’s trial, or Kellen’s guilty plea.

But the fact is there is still a level of “ick” associated with this story because it attempts to normalize a sexual relationship between a thirteen-year-old and a twenty-four year old. It attempts to say that it is natural for a man to act on the feelings of “love” that an abused child develops for him after he becomes the one person in her life to care for her, to feed and clothe her, to make sure she does to school. And I know both myself and other readers will have a visceral reaction the novel on that fact alone. Which is part of why I very nearly picked a one star rating for this novel on GoodReads and moved on.

And yet the novel is good. It is. The writing is crisp, and the switch between the multitude of viewpoints — Wavy, Kellen, Wavy’s cousin, Wavy’s roommate, the court reporter, the judge, Wavy’s grandmother, Wavy’s teacher — never becomes cumbersome or frustrating as it so often does in other novels.

Greendwood’s points about judgement over what constitutes abuse and love are stubbly yet profoundly done. The best example being the juxtaposition of Wavy’s eating disorder — one developed after years of hearing her mother tell her that she’s dirty and not allowing her to eat in public — with the one Wavy’s college roommate, Renee, has developed thanks to parents who heap massive amounts of food on her plate and then ask her how her diet is going. One is viewed as abuse under the legal definition while the other is considered “normal”, but both have a damning effect on each girl’s psyche and relationship with food.

And so with that in mind, it is difficult for me to give the novel a very low rating and move on. Because I understand — as Wavy tries to get her aunt to see — that “normal” is in the eye of the beholder, that “normal” was never afforded to Wavy. Not even by her aunt, who picks and chooses when she wants to be engaged in Wavy’s life. Because I understand that not every book will be for me, but that I can (and do) appreciate books that push me outside of my comfort zone. Because there is quite a bit about Greenwood’s novel that deserves praise, that I hope to see in future novels from her.

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2 Comments

  1. I almost pitched this to my book club last night but they are very conservative sometimes with their reading choices and I didn’t think it would get chosen. I do own a copy though and plan to read it soon.

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    1. I had to miss my book club’s discussion on the novel, Ti, and I wish I had been able to go because they are more conservative with their reading choices, as well. I was really surprised they picked it! Probably would have been a tense yet interesting discussion.

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