All the Ugly and Wonderful Things: If You’re Not Sure What to Choose for Book Club, Read This.

I fell behind on posting. I’m catching up, but I knew I’d read at least three things that I needed to post about, and I tried to remember the book I was forgetting. I eventually came to it – Bryn Greenwood’s All the Ugly and Wonderful Things – and then bam! the whole novel was back with me. So it was at once forgettable (in that the story obviously didn’t linger in my mind), but wholly memorable (in that once triggered I could recall the whole thing). 

It’s in the trauma olympics genre (think Lullabies for Little Criminals or Fourth of July Creek): the kind of novel that sets out to show how you don’t know poverty until you’ve eaten out of a dumpster (spoiler: characters in this novel eat out of dumpsters), or you don’t know abuse until you’ve had X done to you. Unlike some of these other trauma-for-the-sake-of-shock novels, it’s like A Little Life (which remains one of the best books I’ve read – ever.) in that the novel uses the experience of trauma to set the characters (and reader, I guess) up for the contrast with happiness, safety and love.

The core ‘book club’ question in the novel surrounds our protagonist, Wavy, and her true love, Kellen, and the giant age gap between them. Wavy’s aunt stands in for the white, middle-class, soccer mom I imagine as the Heather’s Book Club book club reader (aka: me) and the aunt’s decisions about how to ‘protect’ Wavy (and crucially, when to protect Wavy) from Kellen make for terrific book club fodder.

The novel itself does a terrific job (I think) in withholding judgement on their relationship. Readers are offered descriptions of their love (and all the different ways love manifests and expresses itself – from relational to sexual and everything in between) and invited to draw their own conclusions about the morality of their relationship, and significantly, the agency of both in the relationship. (Wavy’s agency is explored principaly in her relationship with Kellen, but also in her use of her (literal) voice, her relationship with food, and her commitment to formal education).

I suppose I should have reached my own conclusion about the nature of their relationship, but I haven’t. I think it might be the case that what their relationship best demonstrates is the limitations/complications of (a) the legal system in dealing with individual experiences (e.g. mandatory minimums), (b) the social welfare system in recognizing and responding to experiences of child neglect and abuse, particularly in the intersection with mental health, class and race and (c) the conceptualization of ‘childhood’.

All told it was a great read, and would make an excellent book club pick.

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Filed under Book Club, Fiction, Prize Winner

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