69 pages • 2 hours read
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Bryn Greenwood’s novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things (2016) acknowledges and inverts the features of fairy tales and romances to depict a relationship that challenges accepted social values and questions the definition of love itself. Sunk in the depravity and degradation of her father’s drug-dealing lifestyle, eight-year-old Wavy finds her only solace in a questionable attachment to Kellen, a 24-year-old man who is also isolated and longing for some scrap of beauty in a world of squalor. As long as Wavy and Kellen remain alone and unseen, their affection retains a kind of innocence. Once their relationship is revealed, Wavy and Kellen must endure judgment and renegotiate their feelings for one another in the context of public scrutiny. After surviving the scorn and derision thrown at them by society, they forge a life for themselves, redefining family and romantic love. Greenwood’s work looks squarely at a rough, marginal lifestyle without sentimentality or gloss.
This guide uses the 2016 St. Martin’s Press hardback edition.
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Content Warning: This book contains scenes of incarceration, drug use, and intense violence, and its plot centers on a sexualized relationship between an adult and a minor. It also discusses suicidal ideation.
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Born in the back seat of a car, Wavonna (“Wavy”) Quinn grows up in the rural Midwest. Her mother, Val, is abusive and addicted to drugs; her meth dealer father, Liam, is frequently absent but violent when he does return home. Though she spends some time living with her grandmother and later with her aunt (Brenda), Wavy must largely fend for herself while also trying to care for her younger brother, Donal. She speaks little, refuses to be touched, and does not like eating in front of others. Then one day she meets Jesse Joe Barfoot (“Kellen”), who works for her father, when he wrecks his motorcycle after seeing her standing by the road. From age eight to 11, Wavy forges a friendship with Kellen—one that appears as a girlish crush at times but mostly manifests as an odd friendship between two misfits. As Wavy enters middle school, she begins to assert herself sexually, imitating the behavior she sees among the women who congregate at her father’s meth compound, including Val. Family, teachers, friends, and strangers regard the relationship with trepidation, but no one intervenes.
When violence in the drug world finally boils over, it leads to the murder of both Wavy’s parents. In the chaos after the murder, Brenda, Wavy’s cousin Amy, and Liam’s employee Butch walk in on Wavy and Kellen in the garage. Wavy is naked on Kellen’s desk, and Kellen’s fly is open. Brenda calls the police, and Kellen is arrested for rape, though Wavy maintains that they are engaged and she consented to sex. Sean, Liam’s brother, claims custody of Donal, revealing that he is the boy’s biological father. Sean leaves with Donal, and Wavy loses contact with her brother as the letters she sends get returned to her.
Later, Wavy tells her cousins that she and Kellen did not have sex, but that she wanted to provide an alibi so the police could not try him for Val’s and Liam’s murders. Kellen takes a deal rather than go to trial. Wavy spends four years living unhappily with her aunt, Brenda. Kellen goes to prison for six years, with Brenda opposing his parole every time. Wavy goes to college and studies astrophysics. Because the court bars her from contact, Wavy finds out about Kellen’s release months after it happens. Though she eventually finds him, she has to petition the court to allow her to see him. Working within the system this time, Wavy manages to convince a judge to rescind the no-contact order. This time, she cannot manage to get word to Kellen, who has been living with another woman.
Finally, Kellen opens a letter from Wavy asking him to come to her aunt’s house on Labor Day so she can return his motorcycle, which she kept for him while he was in prison. Once they reunite, they stay together and find Donal. Donal had a difficult adolescence and has already spent time in jail, but once Wavy and Kellen rescue him, he begins to move forward. They spend Christmas with Brenda and Wavy’s cousins. Though their past cannot be forgotten, the family seems willing to accept each other where they are.