Book: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
Dates Read: October 30 to November 25, 2018
Rating: 3 (of 5) stars
The last couple months have been a bit crazy for me, and so it has been quite awhile since I have done a normal review. This is one that I struggled with quite a bit. On the one hand, this is a beautifully written and compelling story. On the other, the subject matter is a bit… should I say, problematic? I think perhaps the author hit the nail on the head with the title.
When I first read the description of this book, I thought it sounded potentially interesting. Of course, it’s impossible to ignore that it is definitely polarizing. The main plot is the development of a relationship between a young man and a female child. When they first encounter each other, I believe they are 19 and 8 years old, respectively. The situation that Wavy is living in is quite horrific. Her father is a meth dealer, her mother was recently released from prison and is obviously mentally ill, and she ends up as the primary caregiver to her infant brother as well as her mother. Enter Kellen, a “business associate” of her father, after he crashes his motorcycle on his way up their driveway. After recovering from the accident, he takes an interest in the children at the house. This seems partially due to a perceived debt to Wavy for saving him, as well as some genuine concern for how they are living (really, the first thing he does when he goes to the house is to clean up). Things become much more complicated from here, especially when 11 year old Wavy begins referring to Kellen as her boyfriend, and wondering what she needs to do to get his attention away from other women. This all leading to an increasingly inappropriate relationship developed between Wavy and Kellen over the next several years, with the novel spanning over two decades.
In some ways, it is difficult to deny that Wavy’s relationship with Kellen is in many ways the most functional and healthy relationship that she has with anyone. Does that make this relationship okay? No. It doesn’t. However, I think most of the commentary I have seen about this book ignores what I think might be the most important piece of this: where do we draw the line? I don’t think there are many people who would try to argue that any type of sexual relationship between a 13 year old girl and a 25 year old man is normal. Kellen himself is quick to point this out, and is very clear about the fact that he will not have sex with her. However, there are certainly lines crossed into the territory of sexual impropriety and even sexual abuse (no, it does not matter that she was a willing participant– she was a child, and encouraged his sexual interest in her because she thought it was what she had to do for him to love her).
However, if we look back to the beginning of the relationship, when did it become inappropriate? I think there are some definite places where we can see crossed lines, but many of them are a bit blurred. Was Kellen bringing food to the house, and helping care for the children wrong? Should he have not gotten involved when Wavy’s father was physically abusive? Was the line crossed when he knew that Wavy had a crush on him, but continued to come to the house? What about pretending to be her father for a parent teacher conference, or lying on the forms so that she could be enrolled in school when her parents would not? When Wavy told her Aunt and cousins that she had a boyfriend? Was laying next to her on a blanket in the field wrong, or was it not wrong until she tried to kiss him, or when they started to go out on dates? When Kellen realized he loved her, or told her he loved her? When he gave her a ring?
Doubling back for a second, does any of this make the abusive factor of the relationship okay? Still no. My point though, is that Kellen is not exactly a sexual predator or even a definitive pedophile (he did not have a sexual preference for children; he had no interest in other young girls, just Wavy). Perhaps this is something we should take as food for thought, consider it in how we view other people in the real world. Does it justify their actions? No, but it can help us to understand how lines are blurred for certain people in certain situations.
Boris’s thoughts: “This is complicated. Can we try some light reading next time? 2 paws.”