When the FYI Book Club gathers for a discussion, the venue usually enhances the conversation, with some sort of tie to the reading material: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for “The Muralist,” for example. A radio station for “Your Song Changed My Life.”
For the most recent discussion of “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things,” finding an appropriate space was challenging.
“It’s not like there’s a meth lab open to the public,” said author Bryn Greenwood, laughing, as she referred to the book’s setting.
So readers gathered recently at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central Library to talk about Greenwood’s breakout third novel. The author, who lives in Lawrence, joined the conversation for an admittedly difficult and sometimes controversial book.
“All the Ugly and Wonderful Things” is set in southwest Kansas and, in multiple voices, tells the story of Wavy, the daughter of a meth dealer, and her budding relationship with Kellen, an ex-con who works for her father.
This book might be just another novel about the travails of troubled lovers, except Wavy is 5 and Kellen is 18 when they meet. It’s the vast age difference that gives many readers pause.
The developing relationship is told in the characters’ own voices and those of the people around them: Wavy’s aunt, grandmother and cousin, a roommate, a judge, a jewelry store clerk, Kellen’s boss. All offer insights into the peculiar connection between Wavy and Kellen, and the readers did the same.
“It’s hard to see a man of 22 or 24 care so strongly for a young girl,” said Drew Slickman of Prairie Village. “It was a struggle to stay OK with it as the book went on.”
Most readers thought the age disparity added a level of complexity.
“I was thankful there was someone there for Wavy, and it was someone who saved her from her childhood and helped her become a responsible adult,” said Peggy Martinez of Kansas City.
“Kellen understood Wavy from the very beginning, when he first met her,” said Amica Gomersall of Kansas City. “It was her whole being that grew out of her relationship with Kellen. This may be what put off some readers.”
Denise Fletcher of Kansas City agreed. “This is a subject people don’t want to talk about. I saw shades of ‘Winter’s Bone’ here. Kellen wasn’t well taken care of, so he knew what needed to be done for Wavy and her brother, Donal.”
Edi Shifrin of Kansas City was firm in her belief that Kellen was a good person. “He didn’t want to take advantage of Wavy no matter what she may have wanted.”
“Wavy was the one pushing for a physical relationship,” added Jerry Noernberg of Lee’s Summitt. “Kellen wasn’t. He had rules and standards.”
The sets of rules the characters applied to themselves and one another led to a lively conversation.
“Drugs and addiction create a whole new set of rules for people,” Slickman said. “Legal and illegal rules. People will go to great lengths to keep these rules, especially addicts. I wonder how the legal system deals with exceptions like Wavy and her brother, Donal. We can see it’s good for Wavy to stay out of protective custody, but the system wouldn’t agree. Wavy and Kellen are already working at cross purposes with the law.”
Wavy, who won’t eat in front of people, has self-imposed rules that go back pretty far in her personal history, Slickman noted. “Her rules come from her mother, Val. Val enforces her own rules about germs and strangers on Wavy. Then we learn that Val suffers from OCD, and the drugs she takes make it even worse.”
The author also mentioned society’s rules. “There are elaborate and unspoken rules about food and control that women face. Did you notice that Kellen also has an eating disorder?”
Conversation turned to Brenda, Wavy’s aunt, who wants to keep Wavy and Kellen apart. Vicki Meek of Leawood was adamant that Brenda was not the villain in the story, despite the roadblocks she threw up between Wavy and Kellen.
Noernberg thought Brenda was acting like a typical mother when she tried to get Wavy to eat and wear warm clothes. Martinez noted that Brenda kept Wavy out of foster care. Gomersall said Brenda sees herself as the great protector and the only sane person in the family.
Attendees asked Greenwood where the flawed but likable characters came from.
“I have a mental disorder in which people walk into my head and start talking,” Greenwood said. “These characters walk in, speak to me, and then I backtrack and write their stories.”
Drew said, “So the characters wrote the book?”
Greenwood chuckled. “Feels that way. I’m literally writing as things are happening, and I’m never sure what’s going to happen next.”
Kaite Mediatore Stover is the Kansas City Public Library’s director of reader’s services.
Join the club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Look in FYI on Dec. 10 for the introduction to the next selection, “The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter” by David Sax.