Just a warning: This review will spoil a main plot point of the novel, because I don’t know how to talk about it at all without mentioning it, even though said plot point doesn’t occur until about halfway through. If you don’t want to be spoiled (and really, in this case, I think you should be so you know what you’re getting into), here is a brief summary of my feelings on this book, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things: Extremely well written. Puts you in an uncomfortable situation that forces you to think. Has flawed characters who don’t live in a black and white world. No matter what you think of it morally, this book does what art should do: it provokes.
With that said, SPOILERS ALL TO HELL:
No one in my book club knew what this book was really about when we picked it. It came as rather a surprise. Which is an understatement. The blurb does nothing to warn you that this is coming, just refers in veiled terms to a “a powerful and shocking love story”. Normally I am all for blurbs not spoiling major plot points in books, but I feel there are some exceptions to this. I feel you should know beforehand that you are about to read a book where a young man (very early 20s) and a barely adolescent girl engage in sexual activity (she was fourteen I think? It’s been too long since I finished it and I can’t remember).
But I also think it’s important NOT to think about it in those terms, because this is a book that is 100% about giving context to tough situations, and not a single character is anything but grey. No one comes out of this book smelling like roses, even the two protagonists. Other characters judge and condemn them, even as we spend time in both of their heads and understand exactly why they do what they do. Still other characters feel compassion for them, even if they don’t get their relationship. But at the same time we can also see everyone else’s point of view. It’s actually kind of amazing how Bryn Greenwood managed to pull that off. She presents you with a story in such a way that it feels lived in and real, and you are free to make up your own mind about it. (This is very much NOT a Lolita story.)
In the end, my book club decided we were glad we read this. It provoked good discussion and got most of us out of our comfort zones. We ended up coming to the conclusion that it was a love story, although “powerful” and “shocking” seem like cheap words. It felt more like two very lonely people who’d had extremely difficult lives finding each other and latching on, no matter the consequences. People like this really exist, behave like the characters in this book do, and pretending they don’t is dishonest. In the end, this book feels to me like the author trying to say that even in the places of the world that are the ugliest, good things can be found, too. And those good things won’t look the same to everyone who sees them.
All in all I’m not sorry I read it, even though I never would have picked it up on my own.