Have you ever looked at the reviews for a book and wondered if you accidentally read a completely different book? Like, maybe some devious book gremlin sneaked into wherever books are sold and swapped the book jackets of a bad book and a good book? That's kind of how I feel right now: like I've been book-pranked.
ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS is a romance between a twenty-four-year-old man and a thirteen-year-old girl. Wavy is the daughter of abusive, mentally ill meth dealers. She's shunted from home from home for a while, from a grandmother who loves her but dies, to an aunt who doesn't love her and is afraid of the influence Wavy will have over her own girls, before being returned to her completely unfit parents.
Jesse Joe Kellen/Barfoot is a Choctaw man who is the child of alcoholic parents. His family is either dead or in jail. He currently works as a runner for Wavy's father, transporting drugs and sometimes beating people up if necessary. One day he has an accident, and Wavy is there to help him. She's eight-years-old and he's struck by what a beautiful child she is and how lonely she looks and how she doesn't seem afraid of him like everybody else. He feels bad about the way her family treats her, and ends up immersing himself into her life, stepping in for her parents. Sort of.
Here's the thing. Wavy is thirteen. When they meet, she's eight. But then they start having lots of physical affection between them that is inappropriate - kissing, touching, hand-holding. It turns sexual when she's thirteen. Some people have said that their relationship wasn't sexualized but I really did not get that impression. It felt very sexualized. He calls her breasts "little tits." When she gets dressed, he calls it "a strip tease in reverse". Even when Wavy is 21, she's still described as child-like. Her roommate says she looks like a "child prostitute" when she's wearing makeup.
At first, I thought I was going to like ALL THE UGLY AND BEAUTIFUL THINGS because the writing and story are good, and even though it employs the use of multiple POVs, the story kept moving at a decent pace. But Wavy and Kellen's relationship made me very uncomfortable and I cringed reading it. What Kellen did was sexual abuse, because he took advantage of a very lonely, abused, and neglected child. It doesn't matter that Wavy consented to what he did and even sought it out; she was not in any emotional or psychological state to say yes because she was thirteen.
I really did not like that Wavy's aunt was demonized for calling the cops on Kellen either. Yes, he got sent to jail for six years. Because he did sexual things with a child.
I will give the author props for writing a controversial book that will stir up dialogues about abuse, consent, and sex. I'm sure it will draw inevitable comparisons to LOLITA, too. But I actually think I liked LOLITA better than this because Humbert was so unambiguously the bad guy, and that wasn't quite as clear in this book. Maybe that makes it a more compelling read for some, but that was what turned me off of it, and it disturbs me a little how many people are shelving this as "romance."
1.5 out of 5 stars