All The Ugly and Wonderful Things: A Review and An Appeal for Empathy

New York City is simultaneously the loneliest and least lonely place on the planet. If you just read that and you think what I’m spewing is a bunch of garbage, hear me out.

One is never alone in Manhattan. Okay, it is almost impossible. Even in the deep of the night, when most suburban neighborhoods are completely black and void of activity, Manhattan bustles, albeit at a whisper. Yet, there is also this uncanny loneliness about Manhattan. If you’re not careful, you become an automaton, walking briskly with your head down, never making eye contact, trying not to brush shoulders with oncoming pedestrians. You can exist on a sidewalk filled with people, yet continue to regard everyone around you as strangers.

This isn’t something about which I’d given much thought, until I met Wavonna Lee Quinn, the protagonist of Bryn Greenwood’s bestselling novel All The Ugly and Wonderful Things. Wavy embodies the ultimate stranger. She doesn’t talk and she won’t allow others to touch her. Through the 13-year span of this novel, she survives, though I wouldn’t say thrives, through abuse, countless family tragedies, and heartbreak. She seeks safety in one of the unlikeliest of places, one which other characters in the novel judge mercilessly, and one that I would also scorn, had it not been for Greenwood’s incredible ability to evoke empathy in her readers.

Wavy’s “parents,” if you can even call them that, are Midwestern drug dealers, and her life really is like a car accident; you cannot help but root for and desire to read more about her love story, though, when taken out of context, it is completely irrational and frighteningly graphic. The only adult who ever takes care of her, completely willingly and with the best of intentions, is Kellen, an uneducated mechanic and drug-dealer-on-the-side, who also happens to be more than ten or fifteen years Wavy’s senior. While their relationship is completely platonic during the first few years, the safety that Kellen provides eventually causes Wavy to trust and love him over everyone else in her life. Kellen, who understands Wavy’s family situation because of his own childhood tragedies, likewise finds security and comfort in Wavy’s undying support.

The two characters, though an unlikely, and obviously illegal, pair present one of the sweetest and most oddly unadulterated examples of a love story you will ever read. Wavy, like many New Yorkers, is alone in so many ways, yet feels an incredible sense of safety and comfort in her chaotic and dangerous home. Kellen and Wavy’s story is tragic, though ironically romantic and real, and as a reader, you spend the novel hoping that they are able to be together. In essence, I can only equate the experience of their love story to what one must feel when watching Breaking Bad. You know Evan Cranston isn’t a hero by any stretch, but you can’t help but hope he succeeds, given his circumstances.

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Greenwood’s fictional story is eerily similar to that of J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy, an account of his own unstable childhood living in Kentucky and Ohio. After reading both novels, it is easy to get caught up in the “all Midwesterners are hillbillies and drug dealers” stereotype mentality. While any rational human being knows this is certainly not the case, both novels do inform readers’ understanding of a different lifestyle, one that is a reality for many Americans and one which many people who grew up on the East coast do no understand.

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As New Yorkers, most of us can admit that it is easy to get caught up in one’s own “bubble.” Maybe I should speak for myself here. My world revolves around what happens on the Upper East Side. I live here, I work here, I shop here, and I eat here. Sure, I venture out of my neighborhood to take advantage other parts of the city’s wealth of culture and consumerism, but it can often be difficult to access life outside my neighborhood, let alone in the rest the city.

In this incredibly fragile political climate, it is more important than ever to understand the experiences of other Americans. We are united in one nation that is supposedly indivisible, yet more divided than many of us seemed to realize. The sense of incredible empathy with which these two authors, Bryn Greenwood and J.D. Vance, have provided their readers could not have come at a more appropriate time. Americans are desperate to seek out others who think like they do and to cast aside others who don’t. The power of words is used on social media and in the media at large to insult, persuade, and propagandize opposing viewpoints in minute-by-minute real time, and while most are quick to judge, we often don’t take the time to consider other peoples’ experiences. What could other people, who also call themselves “Americans,” be enduring everyday?

If nothing else, novels provide a space for us to escape our everyday lives, maybe even our loneliness, if we are thinking of reading in the context I suggested earlier. Most good novels allow us to do that easily — a good mystery or work of historical fiction can transport readers out of the everyday and place them inside a different setting or particular moment in time. But, it takes a great novel to really provoke readers to challenge themselves to think outside of what their rational minds would consider to be morally or ethically just. To transport readers out of the black and white and into those gray areas that blur the lines of practicality is truly special. All The Ugly and Wonderful Things does the latter effortlessly.

We have an amazing gift in Manhattan that allows us to experience the lives of others so up close. In just 23 square miles, we have the opportunity to encounter 3.9 million people, and with that, 3.9 million different sets of experiences, perspectives, cultural beliefs, and traditions. Yet, do we really know our neighbors? Beyond that, do we really know the hardships, or even the joys, that people in our own country struggle with or cherish everyday? Reading this novel will challenge you to think outside of the crowded streets of Manhattan and consider the life of a fragile Midwesterner trying to survive in her slice of this America we all call home.

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