Book Review – All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

When the book’s “villain” is the character opposed to a physical relationship between an adult male and an underage girl you know it’s going to be interesting read. I have to admit that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood certainly drew on a lot of disparate elements. It gave readers insights into a criminally inappropriate relationship with life at a 1980s Kansas meth lab serving as the backdrop. I’ve got to give the author an A+ for originality.

In addition to the unorthodox subject matter, Ms. Greenwood selected an unusual way of telling the story. She changed the point of view character with each chapter. While I found this author’s use of the technique easier to follow than Marlon James’ (in A Brief History of Seven Killings) I still had issues with it. As one would expect, the author wrote many of these chapters in the first person. I found it odd that she crafted others in the third person. I also didn’t feel that the author gave sufficient thought in creating each character’s voice. I found many of them very similar. If it hadn’t been for the chapter headings, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the narrator’s identity. To be fair, I thought she did an excellent job making Renee’s and Judge CJ Maber’s voices distinct.

It’s difficult to shock readers of modern literature with graphic language. This is one area where I have to give the author credit, if irreverently. The Court Reporter had the following reaction to 13 year-old Wavy’s testimony regarding a sexual encounter with twenty-something Kellen:

I looked up at her, but I was the only one who did. They lawyers all had their heads bent over their legal pads, but none of them were taking notes. Why bother, when they could get a transcript of it from Penthouse Letters. (Page 239)

To be clear: I’m no stranger to outlandish sexual escapades in literature. I’ve read the daughter’s attempt to seduce her mother in Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher. I’ve read Suetonius’ disturbing portrayal of Emperor Tiberius’ relationship with his “minnows” in The Twelve Caesars. I’ve also read the lurid depictions of pederasty Mario Vargas-Llosa included in The Dream of the Celt. As much as they troubled me, I found the detailed narratives of Wavy’s and Kellen’s encounters grossly out of line and unnecessary. At the risk of sounding iconoclastic, sometimes “tell don’t show” is a better approach to writing.

I didn’t care for the pacing. I found the first half of the book boring. The author showed the development of Kellen’s and Wavy’s relationship. She could have done so just as effectively in a quarter of that many pages at most.

I also thought all the loose ends in the story wrapped up too quickly at the end. There were two significant events that took place in the middle of the book that faded into the background until the final chapter. I would’ve preferred reading about their resolution to more (and more) discussion of Wavy’s and Kellen’s lives.

The main issue I had with the story concerned the protagonists. I couldn’t understand either one of their motivations. Wavy ended up in college to study astrophysics while still pining for her tattooed, biker paramour. She certainly wouldn’t be the first intelligent person to make an unorthodox choice of lovers. I would’ve liked to know precisely what about Kellen interested her so much. With respect to the later character, he admitted to Wavy that he’d been “rubbernecking” at her when he crashed his bike. At the time she was eight years old. Throughout the story he insisted he wasn’t a pedophile. Maybe Kellen didn’t know the correct meaning of rubbernecking. Either way, this came across as very inconsistent to me.

For those who complained that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita needed a meth lab to add excitement: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things will delight them. For me it’s wonderful that I finished the book, but it was sure ugly reading it. I’ve got to go now. Chris Hansen just walked into the room. He has some questions about what I was doing reading the book.

 

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