Book Club: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
In July 2017 our Nashville book club read All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood.
++ I HIGHLY recommend this book for book clubs and individual readers. (Lone readers, you may want to find a book club that’s read this, because I bet you’ll want to discuss it.) That said, it isn’t a cheerful, happy read. It’s hard, and it deals with intense subjects like child abuse (neglect, psychological damage, and a relationship between a young girl and an adult). The subject matter is bleak, the writing is phenomenal, and I assure you there will be lots of topics for discussion in this book. It’s a doozy. But it’s not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. ++
||| SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED. |||
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was a tough book for some people. Just scroll through the Goodreads reviews and see. Some people were greatly disturbed by the age difference between Wavy and Kellen. (That’s the point, isn’t it?) Our book clubbers thought that was interesting since Wavy’s entire childhood was pretty disturbing even without her and Kellen’s relationship, but many reviews were basically only riled up because of pedophilia. Personally, I thought the writing was fantastic, the pacing was great, and the story was heartbreaking and somehow hopeful all at once. I cried onto the pages & was hooked from pretty much the first chapter.
For our book club discussion of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, we had A LOT to talk about.
We liked a few discussion questions from LitLovers, especially these:
Of the female role models in Wavy’s life, which has the greatest effect on her? How do these role models color her views about herself and her relationships?
We liked the relationship Sandy and Wavy had. Val, Wavy’s mother, is obviously useless and even harmful, but Sandy takes an interest in Wavy and tries (at least when Wavy allows it) to help her as much as possible. But then again, which has the “greatest” effect on her, well, that’s probably her mother. Her mother is the reason she eats from the trash, her mother is the reason she believes she’s dirty, and her mother is the reason she bathes in bleach. If only her grandmother hadn’t died at the beginning. (Well, then we wouldn’t have this story, now would we?)
What is the dynamic between Wavy and Kellen as husband and wife at the end? Who do you see as the decision maker? The moral compass? What other roles have they taken on, and how comfortable are they in those roles? Considering their backgrounds, how likely are they to succeed in creating a healthy relationship and a “normal” family?
This is a lot to unpack. Will Wavy and Kellen ever be “normal”? Probably not. How could they? But we did think they’d stay together for many many years. The seriousness of their history and Wavy’s focus and determination to lift his sentence shows us how dedicated Wavy is. Will she ever yearn for more than Kellen can give her? Probably not. Wavy seems to be the decision maker, and we all agreed that Wavy was the more intelligent partner. Moral compass? Maybe Kellen, but that’s hard to tell. He’s certainly the one wanting to wait to engage in a sexual relationship, but that’s possibly only because Wavy can’t comprehend the danger involved in turning their relationship sexual.
Compared to Wavy, her cousins and her college roommate are ostensibly the product of “normal” upbringings. In what ways are they more emotionally healthy than Wavy? In what ways do they have similar emotional issues?
Wavy’s cousin Amy lives a much more normal life than Wavy, though she still deals with coming out as gay. She’s definitely more emotionally healthy. Renee, Wavy’s college roommate and later friend, has a shrine to a dead classmate that she claims was her best friend. When she learns how dark Wavy’s past is she quickly removes her shrine and feels like a phony. When Wavy goes home with Renee for Thanksgiving, she sees how destructive Renee’s mother is and compares her comment on eating pie to her own mother calling her dirty. Emotional issues are everywhere, though Wavy’s are much more intense because of her horrid home life.
// That concludes the LitLovers questions we discussed. There was So. Much. More. //
Let’s talk about Aunt Brenda. Is she a hero or no?
Aunt Brenda knows her niece is living in a harmful, dangerous situation. She makes a few weak attempts to save the child but ends up leaving her at home until the final straw — seeing her niece in a sexual relationship with a significantly older man. (Even though that older man is the reason she went to school, had clean clothes, and often had food.) Aunt Brenda is painted as the antagonist, an obstacle between Wavy and Kellen, and she goes as far as keeping letters from them to cut contact. On on hand, I see Aunt Brenda’s plight and might have done the same (or similar) had a niece of mine been in this situation. BUT. But she knew Wavy was in a severely disturbing home for far FAR too long before intervening. And when she did intervene, she didn’t do much in the way of looking out for Wavy’s emotional or psychological wellbeing. Wavy obviously needed help and fell through every crack in the system. Why didn’t Aunt Brenda have her see a therapist? Was it because of the time period and the stigma of counseling? Or was it just neglect and half-assed helpfulness from Aunt Brenda? What did you think of Aunt Brenda?
The Shifting POV in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things
One thing all of us really enjoyed about this book was the different perspectives. Each chapter is narrated by different people, though obviously Wavy and Kellen narrate more often than other characters. In the book, a pivotal chapter is narrated by Kellen: the night of his birthday. Bryn Greenwood shares this chapter on her blog written from Wavy’s perspective. (If you liked this book you MUST go read this extra chapter.) It really changes the tone of that scene to read it from Wavy’s perspective The author says she wrote pretty much every chapter from multiple POVs, and choosing which was right for the final draft was a difficult task. We all loved discussing the different perspectives and how they added to the story, especially some of the minor characters’ perspectives we only get a chapter or two from.
Have you read All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood? If so, what were your thoughts? Did you love it or hate it?