I started this book two weeks ago, because I saw a review written by a critic whose opinion I value and respect, saying it was one of the best books of the year. Then I saw other reviews, both positive and negative, that made it sound a bit sketchy, but curiosity killed the cat.
The story is pretty engaging, but then we see where it’s headed and, yeah... This is a book about an abused, neglected little girl who progressively becomes dependent and romantically and sexually involved with the only adult person (other than the grandmother who dies early on in the book) who ever shows her love and care, but more importantly who understands her. This is a girl so traumatized that she won’t eat when people are watching, won’t speak, and can’t stand to be touched. And this man, Kellen, sees what’s going on and works around it to the point where she talks to him, lets him touch her, and even eats in front of him.
So, yes, it’s problematic to put it kindly. And look, I think the book has all the right to exist and I’m not surprised people are finding it romantic, because it’s ultimately meant to be the story of two lovers who find each other at the wrong time and are kept apart by horrible circumstances (none of which, BTW, are the fact that he’s an adult and she’s 13). Does the book at times condemn the situation and shows how disturbing and wrong it is? Well, there are characters who certainly disapprove, and one of them, Wavy’s aunt, gets angry and goes after Kellen with all she’s got and actually succeeds at separating them and having him punished, but her anger is portrayed as borderline irrational and, in my opinion, she becomes the villain who keeps them apart. There are other POV characters that disapprove or find it slightly odd, but some of them change their minds, and there are characters that full-on approve and even cheer them on.
There’s also the fact that the narrative works very hard to make Kellen into a caring, gentle, loving, almost innocent man who truly and deeply loves Wavy. His feelings and thoughts towards her never feel sexual, not even when, believe it or not, he’s commenting on her “little tits”. She takes care of him as much as he does her, to the point where he looks at her for permission and to make decisions. At times I felt the book wanted me to feel like she was in charge, like she had power and control of their relationship, when the reality is that of all the people in the book he’s the one who has the most power over her. He’s also a victim who’s never been loved or cared for, so there are parallels between them that humanize him and give their relationship the appearance of equality. She’s the one who initiates all their sexual encounters and he’s appalled when it’s over (but not during or, you know, at the very beginning). He’s not overtly an evil predator grooming a little girl, but he is an adult who should and does know better, who knows this girl has been exposed to things that make her believe sex is how you show affection, how you make someone care, and he doesn’t put a stop to it. He buys her an engagement ring, promises fidelity, and pretends to marry her as soon as possible. There’s a lot of effort put into humanizing him and turning what happens between them into a gray area that yes, makes us uncomfortable because the situation is inherently uncomfortable, but won’t you look at how much they love and need each other?!?
What else? Oh, there are many, many, many remarks about how she’s an old soul, how her eyes look right through you. At six she’s taking care of her baby brother and cooking meals people think were made by an adult. She can read perfectly and name constellations. Her POV sounds like an adult’s and because the narration plays with past and present tense, at times I thought maybe this was adult Wavy narrating her life. So, again, this felt like another justification of what would eventually happen. She’s a little girl, but she’s really mature for her age (and let's not even look at the reasons why she might be "mature").
On her 14th birthday, a series of unfortunate events culminate with him pleading guilty to one count of criminal sexual penetration of a minor, which didn’t actually happen, so that act feels borderline heroic and most certainly tragic. Once he gets out, he’s a sex offender, he has to stay away from her and his life is lonely and sad. This also means we get to see the now 21-year-old Wavy tirelessly working to be back with him, because that’s what she wants, what she’s always wanted, so when she gets her HEA, we’re supposed to be happy for her. There’s nothing ambiguous about the way it ends; their reunion is nothing but joyous. Hell, they even reunite in front of the disgruntled, angry aunt, who I guess gets her comeuppance for all the grief she caused.
One last thing, the book is not genre romance; it’s labeled as literary fiction. There are sex scenes, but none are particularly graphic or titillating, yet some are written in a sweet romantic way. And it’s a love story that asks us to root for the main character and her love interest, so, no. It’s well written and engrossing, but it’s also super disturbing and exploitative.
Grade: 1 star because it romanticizes and excuses the relationship between an adult man and a 13-year-old girl.
As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. Struggling to raise her little brother, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible "adult" around. She finds peace in the starry Midwestern night sky above the fields behind her house. One night everything changes when she witnesses one of her father's thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold, wreck his motorcycle. What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things that life has to offer.All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
Thomas Dunne Books, August 9th, 2016.