Book Review: All The Ugly And Wonderful Things

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5star

Title: All The Ugly And Wonderful Things

Author: Bryn Greenwood

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Series? No

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All The Ugly and Wonderful Things is a book that hooks you in, creeps under your skin, and refuses to let go. Written with a poetic and quiet intensity, the characters of this novel will haunt your thoughts long after the last pages are turned. The book effortlessly provokes a reaction: whether it’s one of disgust or of sympathy. Yet, the emotions never feel manufactured or disingenuous despite the controversial nature of the book’s themes.

“I liked learning things. How numbers worked together to explain the stars. How molecules made the world. All the ugly and wonderful things people had done in the last two thousand years.”

alltheuglyandwonderfulthings

“That’s not the only thing love means. You just got your mind in the gutter.”

Wavy is a girl who grew up without love, told by her own mother that she’s dirty and repulsive. At the beginning of the book, we meet Wavy at the tender age of five, already irreversibly damaged by her psychological and physical abuse. She does not speak, does not allow people to touch her, and is physically unable to eat in front of others. As expected, Wavy has an inherent distrust for the adults she encounters – until she meets Kellen. Kellen, despite being a con man and labelled a ‘fat slob’, is the exception. He’s able to get through her walls and connect with Wavy in a way even her younger brother and grandmother (the other two significant people in Wavy’s life) could not.

“Odd couple that they were, they had a real connection. Then he tugged her boot off and kissed the bottom of her bare foot. I could see him doing that kind of thing to his own kid, but she wasn’t. She was somebody else’s little girl.”

The plot is classic lonely girl meets lonely boy – yet it’s turned on its head by the huge age gap between the two characters. Wavy meets 24 years-old Kellen when she is just 8 years-old.  It’s a gap that seems morally unbreakable, although Kellen signifies safety and belonging to Wavy, two concepts that were completely alien to both of them prior to their meeting. Their relationship is a way for them to find their own comfort and identity in the midst of their awful world. Yet, physically, Wavy and Kellen could not be more mismatched: the text reminds us time and again of Wavy’s waif-like appearance, in contrast to Kellen’s huge form and beer belly. Wavy and Kellen’s bond is no fairy tale romance– it’s messy, fraught with emotional baggage and trauma from their environment.

This book is a remarkable example of the classic writing advice: ‘show, don’t tell’. The reader is never left with a biased viewpoint of our protagonists. Instead, we view Wavy and Kellen’s relationship from a multitude of characters – some recurring, some present for barely half a chapter. The book never presume to tell its audience how to feel about the relationship between Wavy and Kellen. I was allowed to be disturbed as much as I was allowed to be moved. To the very end, I still cannot condone all of Kellen’s actions, both he and Wavy remains extremely flawed. There’s no glorifying of tragedy or romanticising of any circumstances. Bryn Greenwood’s writing unflinchingly explores the ugly places, whether it’s base desires or unpleasant physical descriptors. It’s uncomfortable, it’s confronting, and it will make you question your own moral compass and societal values a thousand times over.

“You can look up the word keening in the dictionary, but you don’t know what it means until you hear somebody having her heart ripped out.”

I can’t quite believe this is Bryn Greenwood’s debut novel, her writing is polished yet evocative. Despite the limited vocabulary of some of her point of view characters, she manages to write some achingly beautiful paragraphs – which just goes to show that SAT words are not everything. The book is captivating, it absorbed and wholly absorbed me until the very end. Although I have only read this one book, I can already tell her stuff will go onto my auto-buy list because this sort of writing is what I live for.

As promised by the title of the novel, the story within is features events that will trigger revulsion – but not necessarily in the manner you would expect. Personally, it was the society around Wavy and Kellen that made me feel the most disgust. It’s a novel completely removed from the white fence, suburban homes – hence, it’s a story that’s completely distant from my own experiences. Its content are at once brutal and beautiful, and it will leave me reflecting and conflicted on the nature of humanity for a long while.

This book does come with a long list of triggers, so please note these before deciding whether you want to read it. Trigger Warnings: child abuse, domestic abuse, implied sexual abuse, drug use, alcoholism, eating disorder.


I am very curious on the thoughts everyone will have upon completing this book, so if you have read it, please come discuss it with me below!

26 thoughts on “Book Review: All The Ugly And Wonderful Things

  1. I’m writing a post about this book because I can’t help but feel disgusted and repulsed by the relationship in the novel. It’s a reaction that I don’t think I can ever get over and, personally, I don’t think I can like a book that has a relationship like that. 😕

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am so interested to read this book, because I’ve heard so many things about the relationship: like how the author did a good job making you root for an otherwise repulsive relationship. I will be curious what I end up feeling about it! Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will be curious to know your thoughts as well, people are extremely divided on the matter. It’s somewhat based on the author’s own childhood so I try to keep that in mind and not dismiss her experience as ‘repulsive’ while I was reading the book,

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      1. I don’t think she was involved in a situation exactly like that. But I read in her interview that her dad was a meth drug dealer as well, and she grew up in that environment and she also gravitated towards older guys.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Is this a Lolita-type scenario, or something more innocent than that? I am guessing from some of the comments you’ve gotten it’s probably going to be the former…

    I think it sounds like an intriguing read. The idea of Wavy and Kellen being viewed from various viewpoints is really interesting to me. I’m guessing that would lead you to question the narrators sometimes? Like in Lolita, when Humbert Humbert describes everything that’s happening as if it’s okay, when any reader could plainly see that this child was not, as Humbert thought, encouraging his sexual advances.

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    1. I don’t think it’s anything like Lolita, Kellen is only ever attracted to Wavy because she is Wavy, not because she’s prepubescent in appearance. It’s Wavy that thinks it’s OK, but Kellen and the characters around them do not normalise the experience at all. I read in an interview that this was partially based off the author’s life, and she was trying to write and portray from a spectrum of experience, not just one deemed acceptable by society. It’s definitely a very gray book, and I think people will be extremely reactionary towards it, whether it’s love or hate.

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  4. Thanks for you thoughtful review, Aentee. I guess it’s not easy to write about such a controversial book. You managed to do it beautifully and tactfully. I usually prefer first POV in books, I find it easy to connect with characters. But I can see that it wouldn’t work in this story. I want to give this story a try, though I definitely need to be in the right frame of mind. The audiobook is narrated by Jorjeana Marie, she is one of my favorite narrators, so I think I’ll go that route.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah it’s definitely a complicated book to review because I do not agree or condone the relationship in the novel, but I do want to acknowledge the author’s experience and her phenomenal writing. I think it was portrayed very well. I heard great things about the audiobook, so I hope you will enjoy it.

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  5. Oh wow, after reading your book I’m definitely interested in seeing what the triggers were and everything behind the moral relationship that they have. It kind of seems really disturbing and not something I would pick up because of the younger girl/older guy dynamic. It definitely sounds like it would open up your mind to something. Lovely review Aentee!

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    1. I don’t think this book normalised the relationship nor is it a romance primarily – more like a twisted tragedy. I think reading the author’s interviews helped me process a lot of this book – and she’s right, not everyone is lucky enough to have a childhood filled with safety and love, we take that for granted and we definitely judge people too harshly. I liked that the book isn’t manipulative and you can still feel all the disgust and nausea while reading – but for this very reason I would not recommend it to everyone.

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  6. This is such a great review, and to be honest, you got me intrigued about a story I wouldn’t normally go for, especially because of all these trigger warnings. These are themes I am not used reading about, nor do I know how I’d feel about these. But that book seems quite, intense, to put it in one word, and the way you describe it, I’m surprised to learn that it’s actually a debut novel ? That’s INSANE. I might need to keep that title in mind, for whenever I’m ready for this kind of read. Sounds like it’s mind-opening!

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  7. Eeep, I mean the writing sounds amazing! But I don’t think I could ever be okay with a child + an adult having a relationship like that. 😳 It is concerning to me. But like if that’s the POINT of the book, then it makes sense in a way, I guess? I don’t know. hehe. I KNOW NOTHING, JON SNOW. I don’t think I’d be reading this, but I still love reading your reviews!

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  8. This is the first review I’ve read for this book. I think I learned about it on Booktube a couple of weeks ago when I saw it called a controversial book. NOW I understand why.
    Your review was fantastic and has me seriously interested in reading it. I am naturally drawn to complex, morally grey, and difficult books and this one sounds like it would challenge me. That’s what I love about reading! Thanks for the recommendations.

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  9. This book is honestly one of my favorites that I’ve read all year. Like the title promised, it is both ugly and wonderful. I loved the fact that they allowed the reader to form their own opinions and never makes you feel like you have to approve or disapprove of their relationship. Throughout the book, I felt myself questioning my own moral beliefs and trying to figure out how I felt about the events. I think this book is beautifully poetic. I look forward to more of her writing in the future. This book will likely stay with me for the rest of my life.

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