If you’re looking for a novel that has the potential to redefine and contradict what you think you know about falling in love and the potential damaging ripple caused by family, look no further than Bryn Greenwood’s new novel, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.
Greenwood didn’t particularly set out to be controversial when she began writing this novel. She knew that the topic of a younger girl and an older man falling in love surrounded by the violence and danger of a meth lab ring wasn’t necessarily going to be widely embraced, but clarifies that it didn’t deter her from telling the story the way she wanted to tell it.
“I have to distinguish between being aware and concerned of people’s reactions, because I certainly was aware how some people were going to feel about it,” Greenwood said. “Now in terms of concerned, zero. I’m not the kind of person that worries about what anybody is going to think when I’m writing. When you’re writing a first draft, if you let yourself worry even a tiny bit about what somebody else is going to think, you’ll freeze up.”
There is certainly enough to nitpick at the novel to make its central topic controversial. Wavy Quinn and her little brother Donal are the children of drug dealer Liam Quinn, owner of a lucrative meth lab enterprise, and his wife Val who craves drugs as much as her husband’s inconsistent love and attention. Wavy in the beginning of the novel is shipped off to the home of Val’s sister Brenda while the former is in a rehab program, attempting to get clean so she can get her children back.
Greenwood herself is the daughter of a reformed drug dealer, so she lived many of Wavy’s experiences first hand. But she certainly doesn’t view the novel as completely biographical. “There are things that are of course reflections of my life, but it’s because these are things that I knew,” Greenwood said. “I know for example what it was like to be twelve years old and madly in love with this guy who was fifteen years older than I was; I knew what it was like to be thirteen, and trying to figure out how to seduce him. Granted my motivations were not as powerful as Wavy’s, but I could certainly extrapolate from what I felt about the situation. “Someone once told me, “I don’t want to imply that you’re working things out” and I said, “Of course I am, aren’t all writers working through their own personal issues?””
She continued to say that her own father and her childhood had few similarities to Wavy’s. “My father is nothing like Liam,” she said laughing. “He’s not that good-looking or charismatic or anywhere near as crazy! But when I was a kid my father certainly wasn’t reformed. He was still dealing drugs and had a huge meth lab production and distribution business. I laugh sometimes when I see reviews that say, “That’s not realistic, meth wasn’t a thing in the 80s” and I think, “I don’t know where you lived, but that was a multi-million dollar business in my life.” A lot of that formed the book, that lifestyle and the way things play out and the risks inherent to it; but in terms of my childhood and Wavy’s? No, she and I are nothing alike. With maybe the exception that we both like to sniff people (laughs). That’s sort of my number one way of figuring out how I feel about them. But Wavy is a very tiny, blond-haired quiet child, while I was a very loud outspoken redheaded kid.”
The first point of view in the book is Amy, Wavy’s cousin who is certainly surprised to see that the daughter of drug dealer looks so normal and nothing like what she and her older sister Leslie had imagined. But Wavy doesn’t talk, and when she does it’s either to recite the names of stars or to vehemently refuse her aunt’s request that she see a therapist. Val eventually comes back for her daughter, but soon she’s fallen back into drugs and with Liam; pregnant with a boy, Donal, who becomes Wavy’s surrogate child since Val is often too high or depressed to get out of bed.
Val is a complex character that we never really know with the exception of her emotional instability. Greenwood explains that initially, she had chapters written from Val’s perspective but they didn’t make it into the book. “She was definitely the hardest character for me to write,” Greenwood explained. “One of the reasons her point of view wasn’t included is because in the early stages, people had a difficult time connecting with Val, and I understand why.”
Greenwood went on to say that while living in Florida, she worked for a domestic violence shelter near Tampa and one of her responsibilities was coordinating volunteers. “The first half of the volunteer orientation was people coming in and learning all about the program,” Greenwood said “But then they actually met some of our clients, and the vast majority of people who wanted to volunteer never did because they didn’t particularly sympathize with these women, who weren’t necessarily very sympathetic to begin with.”
She added that with Val’s character, the same unlikeability applied. “She confuses people because they want to ally themselves with her; her husband is an abuser and she’s an addict but her behavior is so erratic that nobody feels any empathy towards her.” Val constantly tells Wavy that men, and Liam in particular, are not to be trusted. But Val is just as unstable and unreliable as before, even more so when she becomes manic due to the drugs, her husband’s abandonment and his resident girlfriends.
As Wavy’s world gets narrower in an environment of complete parental neglect, she abruptly finds herself face-to-face with a man she labels, “The Giant”. Jesse Joe Kellen is in truth one of the thugs under employment by Wavy’s father, Liam. His motorcycle skids on the gravel as he sees her on the road, this young little girl with the face of an angel and blonde hair. Not understanding if Wavy is real or just a vision, he suffers a terrible accident on the bike. Wavy, who barely utters a single word to strangers, finds herself connecting to Kellen in a way she’s never done with anyone, to the point that she forces herself to call her father, who she fears and distrust, with the sole purpose of helping Kellen.
Kellen’s accident is the beginning of a relationship between a man and a girl, who have never known what it’s like to be loved and cared for by anyone, not even their own parents. Wavy’s refusal to be touched by anyone and her unwillingness to speak to people exclude Kellen from the equation, and he rapidly becomes the only person in her upside-down world that she can trust and depend on.
The feelings that Wavy starts to develop for Kellen and vice-versa, might simply be dismissed for a symbolic father-daughter affinity, but Greenwood is quick to shoot down this theory. “I always say no to that,” she states firmly. “I absolutely decline to believe that Kellen thinks he’s a father figure or that Wavy aspires to have a paternal relationship with him. After all, Wavy’s father and Kellen’s are both sources of pain and confusion. So these two never have that kind of relationship going on.”
Greenwood agrees however, that Kellen in the beginning is not really clear on the exact nature of what Wavy feels for him. “He knows he loves her even when she’s very young, but he doesn’t understand the depth of her feelings for him,” Greenwood said. “Obviously their relationship is very unusual and quite intense. He’s the only one aside from Donal who accepts her strange behavior without question. The only point in which he does anything remotely judgmental to her is on a particular night when Wavy attempts to take their relationship further and he tries to extricate himself from the situation, realizing it’s not appropriate.”
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is abundant with multiple points of view, that go from Wavy’s elementary school teacher Miss Degrassi to one of Liam’s ever-present girlfriends, Dee. And Dee is an even more difficult character to understand than Val, because there seems to be nothing in it for her to have a relationship with Liam, with the exception of playing stand-in when Val is too drugged up to make an appearance or one of Liam’s prettier girlfriends like Sandy (who also has a POV) isn’t readily available.
“Dee is someone who is very specific to that culture,“ Greenwood said. “I knew quite a few Dees when I was growing up. In the environment in which she lives, the reality is that the guy who’s in charge and using a substantial quantity of drugs, is kind of on all the time, and he needs people to be on with him. Often just one woman doesn’t do the trick because he always needs someone to be available when he’s in his mood, wants to go out on the bike, or even when he’s angry; the woman has to be there. In the book, Dee is that person, and she doesn’t have the same moral center as your average American reader. She sees the world in a completely different way and her purpose is to get as much time with Liam as possible. Wavy to her is more of a minor annoyance and she really has no concern about Wavy and Kellen because it’s just not important to her.”
But going back to the topic of multiple perspectives, Greenwood said that it wasn’t at all difficult to write so many voices because that’s the way she usually writes. “I can think of probably only two instances in which I wrote from the point of view of just one character. I tend to approach things almost like a documentary, trying to figure out what everybody is looking at and thinking about. Wavy, for example is a very idiosyncratic character she and Kellen are very insular, they’re tightly connected to each other in ways that don’t make sense to the outside world. And it seemed to me that if I narrowed the points of view to just the three or four main characters, it wouldn’t be a fair representation of the situation.
As the years go by and their relationship deepens, Wavy and Kellen become each other’s support system as Val becomes more unhinged after a nasty accident, and Liam in turn is increasingly more violent and abusive. Wavy clumsily steps into adolescence knowing that she’s in love with Kellen and wants nothing more than to be with him. But once Kellen understands her intentions, he knows that he has to deter her from making any advances towards him, while battling his own confusion about Wavy.
Perhaps because of her paranoia and mistrust of her own husband, Val eventually picks up on Wavy’s closeness with Kellen and spews on her daughter the accumulated rant that brews constantly in her mind:
“You can’t trust him, baby. He’ll get into you. You can’t get clean once that happens. And then he’ll break your heart, like Liam did mine. But you’re special. Nobody can touch you, okay? Promise?”
Mama dug her nails into my arm
“Promise me, baby.” It was a trick. She was going to make me promise something and I didn’t even know what I was supposed to promise. Not to trust Kellen? Not to let him creep into me? To take the pills? That nobody would touch me?
Mama was trying to ruin Kellen. To make him bad like Liam.
As distrustful as Val is of Kellen due to her fragile mind, Val’s sister Brenda is even more apprehensive of Kellen’s constant presence in Wavy’s life. After a horrible tragedy destroys everything Wavy has ever known, she is yanked away from Kellen and forced to live with her aunt and cousins. Even though Brenda’s husband is violently opposed to Wavy living permanently with them, Brenda feels that it’s her obligation to take Wavy in.
As Wavy gets older, Brenda tries to exert control over Wavy and her choices, going behind her back to do something rather despicable. But Greenwood doesn’t quite see Brenda as a villain. “Actually, I think of her as us,” Greenwood said. “Perhaps the reason Brenda makes people so upset, is because they don’t want to believe that they would play the role that she does. But I have mixed feelings about Brenda in the same way I have mixed feelings about our entire society. Brenda does have good intentions, but that’s all she really has, and I think we all remember the saying about good intentions.”
Despite the odds All the Ugly and Wonderful Things reaches a conclusion that presents if not quite a happy ending at least a tentative new beginning. While Greenwood didn’t set out to write a novel that would serve as a people-pleaser, she would like readers to keep an open mind and give this story a chance.
“One of my big hopes is that people who read it will suspend judgment, which is really difficult for some. I wish people would think about with this is the concept of consent because when we talk about it, we mostly refer to it in terms of sex, when the reality is that children’s consent is perpetually being violated,” Greenwood explained. She went on to say that someone had pointed out that Kellen was indeed a “pervert” because at one point in the novel, he takes Wavy to get motorcycle boots and a helmet so she can ride safely with him. Kellen remarks on how the lady at the bike shop keeps trying to touch Wavy because she’s so sweet and innocent looking.
Greenwood didn’t understand why this thought made Kellen a pedophile for some readers. “It seems to me that he’s one of the few adults in the book actually concerned about whether she wants to be touched or not,” Greenwood stated. “Other adults in the book are regularly violating her consent about that. So that’s what I wanted people to think about, how we police people’s bodies without them wanting us to.”
I pointed out that under that analysis, didn’t Brenda also violate Wavy’s consent many times, going behind her back, doing things in her name that Wavy had absolutely no knowledge of? “Yes, and that’s why Brenda to me is a narrative stealer,” Greenwood said. “She’s constantly co-opting Wavy’s narrative for her own purposes and denying her the opportunity to speak her piece on the subject of Kellen.”
While a novel like All the Ugly and Wonderful Things may spark extreme feelings of either love or hate for it, Bryn Greenwood presents a strong and compelling narrative. A lesson on life, hope, and tragedy showing us how even through the ugliest situations, wonderful things such as love and hope are well worth fighting for.
Bryn Greenwood’s answers and interviewer’s questions have been edited.