All the Ugly and Wonderful Things: An uncomfortable, interesting, and challenging read

I recently finished reading All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, written by Bryn Greenwood, and have been thinking about it a lot. Specifically, I have been thinking about the mixed reviews and whether it deserves them. What makes a book inappropriate? Should certain subject matters not be discussed in a positive, or even neutral light?

Here is the Goodreads synopsis in case you haven’t heard anything about the book:

“As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. Struggling to raise her little brother, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible “adult” around. She finds peace in the starry Midwestern night sky above the fields behind her house. One night everything changes when she witnesses one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold, wreck his motorcycle. What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things that life has to offer.”

I’d like to start off with a disclaimer that I don’t think pedophelia is ok. I am exclusively talking about these characters in the context of this story.

To tell the story, Greenwood uses multiple perspectives. Some characters get many chapters while others we only see for a chapter or two. Some are told in first person and some in third. This switching between perspectives helps to keep the reader’s opinions balanced. We see things through Wavy and Kellen’s eyes, and forget that their relationship, especially once it turns physical, is something that even needs to be debated. But then we see things from another character’s eyes and remember that this is a child and an adult. No matter how grown-up Wavy seems, she is still a minor. No matter how kind Kellen is, he is still an adult. This balance of perspective helps create a neutral baseline for the story, where the reader is allowed to make up her own mind about the contents of the story, since we are not being pushed in one direction or the other.

This switching of perspectives helps drive home the idea that nothing is black and white. From an outside perspective, it is easy to say with confidence that their relationship is wrong, disgusting, or sick. But when you read from Kellen’s point of view, you understand that he is not taking advantage of her. When you read from Wavy’s point of view, you understand that she is not being taken advantage of. There is no right or wrong answer to the question of their relationship – perhaps the answer is both. It is wrong, but it is also right.

In regard to subject matter, where should the line be drawn? Murder is a horrible crime as well, but there is no shortage of movies and books about the subject and we don’t blink an eye. Of course we know that murder is wrong, but we also know that reading a book from the perspective of a murderer won’t make us have murderous intent. Similarly, reading a book about a relationship between an adult and a minor won’t make us have pedophilic intent.

The reason Greenwood’s subject matter in this book brings so much debate is because it makes us uncomfortable, as it should, and as is meant to by the author. We are reading about something we saw as black and white, and are made to see the issue from the other side, in a situation that is far from being 100% right or 100% wrong. We can sympathize with the characters, which is uncomfortable because it forces us to reevaluate our values and beliefs, which we thought we held so firmly.

This book challenges the reader. It challenges us to be open to different perspectives, to reassess what we thought we firmly believed in, and to see the world in the shades of gray it is in. It is uncomfortable and challenging, and that is what makes it an interesting read.