All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book does something unique: it makes you root both for the protagonists and against them at the same time. On one hand, you are rooting for Wavy and Kellen to end up together--after all, this is a love story. Even the most curmudgeonly reader wants, on some level, to see a happy ending. But then, the moment you realize that you're rooting for them, you're instantly horrified, because you understand that what you allegedly want to happen is for an 8-year-old and a 21-year-old (or however old they grow up to be, eventually) to have a successful romantic relationship. To put it mildly, it's a little too Lolita for comfort.
I liked this book. I liked the world Greenwood created: the dusty Midwest, full of women wearing too much makeup and not enough clothes, the men covered with tattoos and smelling like gasoline and cigarettes. The narrative compelled me from the outset: the tough little girl who wouldn’t speak, who desperately needed a caretaker, and who defied expectations. And I appreciated the nuances of the surrounding characters. However, I didn’t love the impromptu narrative shift to characters other than Wavy and Kellen; it struck me as lazy authorship not to be able to convey what these other characters thought or felt without diving straight into their heads. The jump between first and third person also threw me from time to time—something you definitely don’t want to do to a reader who is as engrossed in the story as I was.
Up until the “all is lost” moment, I was 99.9% sold on this book. I thought for sure I’d give it 5 stars. But then it started feeling like Greenwood was trying to jam in “everything but the kitchen sink,” and in spite of everything that was happening, I could already see how the story would end. I knew how I would end the story, but I also could tell, without reading ahead, how Greenwood was going to wrap things up. And frankly, I think tying things up so neatly was a missed opportunity. This was a complex issue he was exploring, with a lot of internal and external factors at play. To give it such a straightforward resolution did the characters and the readers—and the story, really—a disservice.
Endings are hard. I’d be interested to know how many endings Greenwood wrote for this book before settling on the one that’s in there. But, ultimately, I think he chose wrong. Hopefully he’ll do better with whatever he writes next—which I most certainly will read.
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