ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS

Bryn Greenwood

New York Times and USA Today bestseller
Book of the Month Club 2016 Book of the Year
Second Place Goodreads Best Fiction of 2016

A beautiful and provocative love story between two unlikely people and the hard-won relationship that elevates them above the Midwestern meth lab backdrop of their lives.

As the daughter of a drug dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. It’s safer to keep her mouth shut and stay out of sight. Struggling to raise her little brother, Donal,

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New York Times and USA Today bestseller
Book of the Month Club 2016 Book of the Year
Second Place Goodreads Best Fiction of 2016

A beautiful and provocative love story between two unlikely people and the hard-won relationship that elevates them above the Midwestern meth lab backdrop of their lives.

As the daughter of a drug dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. It’s safer to keep her mouth shut and stay out of sight. Struggling to raise her little brother, Donal, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible adult around. Obsessed with the constellations, she finds peace in the starry night sky above the fields behind her house, until one night her star gazing causes an accident. After witnessing his motorcycle wreck, she forms an unusual friendship with one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold.

By the time Wavy is a teenager, her relationship with Kellen is the only tender thing in a brutal world of addicts and debauchery. When tragedy rips Wavy’s family apart, a well-meaning aunt steps in, and what is beautiful to Wavy looks ugly under the scrutiny of the outside world. A powerful novel you won’t soon forget, Bryn Greenwood’s All the Ugly and Wonderful Things challenges all we know and believe about love.

31 Books Bringing the Heat this Summer —Bustle
Top Ten Hottest Reads of 2016 —New York Daily News
Best Books of 2016 —St. Louis Post Dispatch

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  • A Thomas Dunne Book for St. Martin's Griffin
  • Paperback
  • October 2017
  • 352 Pages
  • 9781250153968

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About Bryn Greenwood

Bryn Greenwood is a fourth-generation Kansan, and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer. She earned an MA from Kansas State University and continues to work in academia as an administrator. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The New York Times, Chiron Review, Kansas Quarterly, Karamu, and The Battered Suitcase. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

Author Website

Praise

New York Times and USA Today bestseller
Book of the Month Club 2016 Book of the Year
Second Place Goodreads Best Fiction of 2016

“If you’re looking for a dangerous, shocking, and unexpectedly touching story, this is it…This is a book that will shake you to the core.”Bustle, “31 Books Bringing the Heat this Summer”

“Captivating and smartly written from the first page, Greenwood’s work is instantly absorbing. Pithy characters saunter, charge or stumble into each scene via raw, gripping narrative. Greenwood slow-drips descriptions, never giving away everything at once. Rather, she tells her story as if lifting a cloth thread by thread, revealing heartbreaking landscapes and riveting dialogue in perfect timing. This book won’t pull at heartstrings but instead yank out the entire organ and shake it about before lodging it back in an unfamiliar position.”Christina Ledbetter, The Associated Press

“This book destroyed me. I have never read anything like it. I came to the end of the novel with my mind-reeling, my emotions scattered, and completely unsure exactly what I did feel about it…but one thing is certain: I felt. Oh hell, I felt. I don’t think I’ll ever get these characters off my mind.”Emily May, #1 Worldwide most popular reviewer, Goodreads

Discussion Questions

1. From the first moment we meet Wavy, her life is filled with rules. Most are her mother’s rules, but some are hers. What rules are holding Wavy back and which ones does she use to construct a sense of safety? How do the rules change as she grows up?

2. Wavy’s fears and her efforts to resist fear are major themes in the story. How does the refrain “nothing left to be afraid of” guide Wavy’s life?

3. More than once, it’s remarked that the kitchen door of the farmhouse is unlocked, and Wavy points out that there isn’t even a key to that door. On a practical level, what does it say about Wavy and the people around her that this door is never locked? As a metaphor, what does it tell us?

4. Kellen is a murderer and Wavy knows this from an early point in her relationship with him. How is she able to know this while still considering him a good person? What things in her life have prepared her to accept two seemingly contradictory ideas? How do you feel about this paradox?

5. The book provides multiple points of view of Wavy and Kellen, including their own. How are your impressions of them altered by a narrator’s biases? Who seems like the most reliable narrator? Who seems the least reliable? How do you decide whose opinion to trust?

6. Aunt Brenda’s perspective is the one that most clearly correlates to our current social attitudes toward relationships like Wavy and Kellen’s, but is she the hero of this story? To what degree do you sympathize with her?

7. Compared to Wavy, her cousins and her college roommate are ostensibly the product of “normal” upbringings. In what ways are they more emotionally healthy than Wavy? In what ways do they have similar emotional issues?

8. Until 2006, the state of Kansas had no law requiring a minimum age for marriage, as long as the underage bride or groom had parental or judicial consent. On occasion this produced child brides far younger than Wavy would have been. The law now sets the minimum age at fifteen, a year younger than the age of consent. How does marriage change our views of what would otherwise be statutory rape? What if Kellen’s wish had come true, and he and Wavy had married after her fourteenth birthday? How would we view that relationship once it was sealed by law?

9. When we talk about “consent” we have a bad habit of restricting it to the question of sex, but what other types of consent are at play in the story? Stress is placed on Wavy’s capacity to consent to a sexual relationship with Kellen, but what about her capacity to consent or refuse consent to other things?

10. Of the female role models in Wavy’s life, which has the greatest effect on her? How do these role models color her views about herself and her relationships?

11. As much as we may wish for Wavy and Kellen’s relationship to remain platonic, what do you feel contributes to its steady shift toward becoming first romantic and then sexual? What might have happened if it had remained platonic?

12.Amy narrates a large portion of Wavy’s life, while only revealing parts of her own. How does she choose what to reveal and what to hide? And why might she prefer to tell Wavy’s story over her own?

13.What is the dynamic between Wavy and Kellen as husband and wife at the end? Who do you see as the decision maker? The moral compass? What other roles have they taken on, and how comfortable are they in those roles? Considering their backgrounds, how likely are they to succeed in creating a healthy relationship and a “normal” family?

Excerpt

Chapter 1

 

AMY

March 1975

My mother always started the story by saying, “Well, she was born in the backseat of a stranger’s car,” as though that explained why Wavy wasn’t normal. It seemed to me that could happen to anybody. Maybe on the way to the hospital, your parents’ respectable, middle-class car broke down. That was not what happened to Wavy. She was born in the backseat of a stranger’s car, because Uncle Liam and Aunt Val were homeless, driving through Texas when their old beat-up van broke down. Nine months pregnant, Aunt Val hitchhiked to the next town for help. If you ever consider playing Good Samaritan to a pregnant woman, think about cleaning that up.

I learned all this from eavesdropping on Mom’s Tuesday night book club. Sometimes they talked about books, but mostly they gossiped. That was where Mom first started polishing The Tragic and Edifying Story of Wavonna Quinn.

After Wavy was born, Mom didn’t hear from Aunt Val for almost five years. The first news she had was that Uncle Liam had been arrested for dealing drugs, and Aunt Val needed money. Then Aunt Val got arrested for something Mom wouldn’t say, leaving no one to take care of Wavy.

The day after that second phone call, Grandma visited, and argued with Mom behind closed doors about “reaping what you sow,” and “blood is thicker than water.” Grandma, my soft-in-the-middle, cookie-baking grandma shouted, “She’s family! If you won’t take her, I will!”

We took her. Mom promised Leslie and me new toys, but we were so excited about meeting our cousin that we didn’t care. Wavy was our only cousin, because according to Mom, Dad’s brother was gay. Leslie and I, at nine and going on seven, made up stories about Wavy that were pure Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Starved, kept in a cage, living in the wilderness with wolves.

The day Wavy arrived, the weather suited our gloomy theories: dark and rainy, with gusting wind. Of course, it would have been more fitting if Wavy had arrived in a black limo or a horse-drawn carriage instead of the social worker’s beige sedan.

Sue Enaldo was a plump woman in a blue pantsuit, but for me she was Santa Claus, bringing me a marvelous present. Before Sue could get a rain bonnet over her elaborate Dolly Parton hair, Wavy hopped out of the backseat, dangling a plastic grocery bag in one hand. She was delicate, and soaked to the skin by the time she reached the front door.

Leslie’s face fell when she saw our cousin, but I wasn’t disappointed. As soon as my mother opened the door, Wavy stepped in and surveyed her new home with a bottomless look I would grow to love, but that would eventually drive my mother to despair. Her eyes were dark, but not brown. Grey? Green? Blue? You couldn’t really tell. Just dark and full of a long view of the world. Her eyelashes and eyebrows were translucent, to match her hair. Silver-blond, it clung to her head and ran trails of water off her shoulders onto the entryway tile.

“Wavonna, sweetie, I’m your Aunt Brenda.” It was a mother I didn’t recognize, the way she pitched her voice high, falsely bright, and gave Sue an anxious look. “Is she—is she okay?”

“As okay as she ever is. She didn’t say a word to me on the drive over. The foster family she’s been with this week, they said she was quiet as a mouse.”

“Has she been to see a doctor?”

“She went, but she wouldn’t let anyone touch her. She kicked two nurses and punched the doctor.”

My mother’s eyes went wide and Leslie took a step back.

“Okay, then,” Mom cooed. “Do you have some clothes in your bag there, Wavonna? Let’s get you into something dry, okay?”

She must have expected Wavy to fight her, but when she reached for the grocery bag, Wavy let it go. My mother opened it and frowned at the contents.

“Where are the rest of her clothes?”

“That’s it,” Sue said. “She came to us wearing a man’s undershirt. Those are the clothes the foster family got together for her.”

“I’m sure Amy has something she can wear for now.”

Putting her hands on her knees to get to Wavy’s height, Sue said, “Wavonna, I’m going to go now and you’re going to stay here with your aunt. Do you understand?”

The grown-ups talked to Wavy like she was a little kid, but at five she made a very adult gesture: a curt nod to dismiss Sue.

After Sue was gone, the four of us stood in the entryway, staring. Mom, Leslie, and I at Wavy. Wavy seemed to have x-ray vision, staring through the living room wall at the Venus oil lamp that hung on the other side. How did she know it was there to stare at it?

“Well, why don’t we go upstairs and get Wavonna into some dry clothes,” Mom said.

In my room, Wavy stood between the two beds, dripping onto the rug. Mom looked anxious, but I was thrilled to have my real live cousin in my room.

“Here, Amy, why don’t you help her unpack while I get a towel?” Mom retreated, leaving us alone.

I opened an empty drawer and “unpacked” Wavy’s bag: another hand-me-down sundress as threadbare as the one she had on, two pairs of panties, an undershirt, a flannel nightgown, and a new baby doll, smelling of fresh plastic.

“This will be your dresser.” I didn’t want to sound like my mother, like an adult. I wanted Wavy to like me. After I put the clothes in the drawer, I held the doll out to her. “Is this your baby?”

She looked at me, really looked at me, and that’s how I knew her eyes weren’t brown. Her head moved left, right, back to center. No.

“Well, we can put it in here, to keep it safe,” I said.

Mom returned with a towel, which she tried to put over Wavy’s dripping hair. Before Mom could touch her, Wavy snatched the towel away and dried her own hair.

After a moment of stunned silence, Mom said, “Let’s find something for you to wear.”

She laid out panties and an undershirt on the bed. Without any embarrassment, Wavy peeled off the sundress and dropped it on the floor, before stepping out of her tennis shoes. She was almost as bony as the kids in the UNICEF ads, her ribs sticking out through the dry cotton undershirt she put on.

I offered her my favorite corduroy pants and plaid shirt, but she shook her head. With her thumb and first finger she plucked at an invisible skirt. Mom looked helpless.

“She wants her dress,” I said.

“She needs something warmer.”

So I went into my closet and found a Christmas party dress I hated the one time I wore it. Navy velvet with a lace collar, it was too big for Wavy, but it suited her. With her hair already drying to blond wisps, she looked like she had stepped out of an old photograph.

At lunch, Wavy sat at the table, but didn’t eat anything. Same thing at dinner and breakfast the next morning.

“Please, sweetie, just try a bite.” Mom looked exhausted and she’d only been a stay-at-home aunt one day.

I love my mother. She was a good mother. She did arts and crafts projects with us, baked with us, and took us to the park. Until we were practically teenagers, Mom tucked us into bed every night. Whatever Wavy needed, it wasn’t that.

The first night, Mom tucked Wavy and me into bed, me with my Winnie the Pooh, and Wavy with the baby doll she said wasn’t hers. As soon as Mom left the room, Wavy threw off her covers and I heard the thud of the doll hitting the floor. If something else had happened to make the room go dark—if Leslie had played a prank or the bulb had burned out—I would have screamed for Mom, but when Wavy turned off my nightlight, I shivered under my covers, afraid but excited. After she lay down again, she spoke. Her voice was small and quiet, just what you would expect from a tiny, blond elf-child.

“Cassiopeia. Cepheus. Ursa Minor. Cygnus. Perseus. Orion.”

Since she had finally spoken, I grew brave enough to ask, “What does it mean?”

“Names of stars.”

Until then I hadn’t known the stars had names. Arm extended, finger pointing, Wavy traced out shapes above her head, as though she were guiding the movements of the stars. A conductor directing a symphony.

The next night, Wavy smiled at me as Mom crawled around looking for the unwanted doll. A minute after we were tucked in, the baby was again among the dust bunnies under the bed. Eventually that became the doll’s name: Dust Bunny. If Mom failed to look for the doll at bedtime, I said, “Oh, no. I think Dust Bunny is missing again,” to make Wavy smile.

While I had a growing friendship with Wavy, my mother had only anxiety.

In the first month, Mom took Wavy to the doctor three times, because she wasn’t eating. The first time, a nurse tried to put a thermometer in Wavy’s mouth. It didn’t end well. The other two times, Wavy mounted the scale and the doctor pronounced, “She’s underweight, but not dangerously so. She must be eating something.”

Dad said the same thing and he had evidence to back it up. One night, he came home from work after we were all in bed, and woke us up shouting, “Oh, goddamnit! What are you doing? What are you doing?”

Wavy wasn’t in her bed, so I ran downstairs alone. I found Dad in the kitchen with the trash can lid in one hand and his briefcase in the other. I’d never been in the kitchen that late. In the day it was a warm, sunny place, but behind Dad, the basement door stood open and dark, like the mouth of a monster.

“What’s the matter, Daddy?”

“It’s nothing. Go back to bed.” He put the lid on the trash and laid his briefcase on the table.

“What’s going on, Bill?” Mom came up behind me and put her hand on my shoulder.

“She was eating out of the trash.”

“What? Amy, what are you—”

“Not Amy. Your niece.”

Mom didn’t take Wavy to the doctor again to complain about her not eating.

After failing to solve that crisis, Mom became obsessed with sewing for Wavy. The dresses you could buy hung on her like sacks and were too frilly, which Wavy hated. The first day she wore my Christmas party dress, she tore the lace collar off.

So Mom sewed dozens of dresses that Wavy unraveled, plucking at the seams until a thread came loose. From there she could unravel a dress in less than a week. Mom rehemmed her dresses each time they came through the wash. It slowed the unraveling down, which was a practical solution, but Mom didn’t want a solution, she wanted a reason.

One of the book club ladies said, “Does she have toileting problems?”

Mom frowned, shook her head. “No, there’s no trouble like that. She’ll be six in July.”

Wavy and I eavesdropped from the other side of the kitchen door. Her games all involved sneaking around and finding people’s secrets, like the cigarettes my father hid in a coffee can in the garage.

“I wonder if she’s acting out over some inappropriate contact,” the book club lady said.

“You think she might have been molested?” another lady said, sounding shocked but excited.

That conversation led to Wavy’s first visit to a therapist. She stopped unraveling her dresses and Mom went around looking triumphant. To Dad, she said: “I think we’ve had a breakthrough.”

Then she discovered the curtains in the guest bedroom, which were what Wavy took to unraveling when she stopped doing it to her clothes.

Mom and Dad yelled at each other while Wavy stared through them.

“Why does there have to be something wrong with her?” Dad said. “Maybe she’s just weird. God knows your sister’s weird enough. I don’t have time for you to get hysterical over everything she does. We have to wrap up the books on the fiscal year-end.”

“I’m worried about her. Is that so horrible of me? She never talks. What’s going to happen to her?”

“She does too talk,” Leslie said. “I hear her talking at night to Amy.”

Mom slowly turned to all of us, narrowed in on me. “Is that true? Does she talk to you?”

She stared into my eyes, pleading with me. I nodded.

“Well, what does she talk about?”

“It’s a secret.”

“There can’t be secrets, Amy. If she tells you something important, you have to tell me. You want to help Vonnie, don’t you?” Mom got down on her knees in front of me and I saw how it was. She would make me tell my secret. I started to cry, knowing I would tell and it wouldn’t help Mom or Wavy. It would just rob me of something precious.

Wavy saved me. With her hand over her mouth, she said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

My mother’s eyes bulged. “I—I—I.” She couldn’t get a word out and even Dad looked stunned. The silent ghost girl could speak in complete sentences.

“I want you to go back to the therapist,” Mom said.

“No.”

Things might have gotten better after that, if it hadn’t been for the other secret between Wavy and me. She liked to sneak out of the house at night, and I went with her. Breezing down the stairs on bare feet, we eased open the kitchen door and walked around the neighborhood.

Sometimes we just looked. Other times, we took things. The night of Wavy’s sixth birthday, when she had left her cake uneaten, she jimmied open Mrs. NiBlack’s screen door. We crept across the kitchen to the refrigerator, where Wavy pressed her finger to the lever to keep the light inside off. On the bottom shelf sat a half-eaten lemon pie, which we carried away. Crouched under the weeping willow in the Goerings’ backyard, Wavy tore out a chunk of pie with her bare hand and gave me the plate. She went around the corner of the garden shed and when she came back, her piece of lemon pie was gone. No, she wasn’t starving.

Some nights we gathered things. A wine bottle scavenged from the gutter. A woman’s high-heeled shoe from the median of the highway, where we weren’t supposed to go. An old hand mixer abandoned outside the Methodist Church’s back door. We collected our treasures into a metal box stolen from the neighbor’s garage, and secreted it along our back fence, behind the lilac bushes.

When autumn came, the lilacs lost their leaves, and Dad found the box of treasure, including Mrs. NiBlack’s heavy glass pie plate, her name written on the bottom of it on a square of masking tape. Mom returned it to Mrs. NiBlack, who must have told her how the pie plate went missing: stolen out of her fridge on a hot July night, a trail of small dirty footprints left on the linoleum.

Or maybe something else made Mom suspicious.

As the weather got colder, I wanted to stay at home in bed, but when Wavy got up and dressed, I did, too. If I didn’t go, she would go alone. Half of my fear was that something would happen to her. The other half was a fear that she would have adventures without me.

So I went with her, shivering against the cold, while my heart pounded with excitement. At the library, Wavy went up on tiptoe to reach her spindly arm into the book return. In the day, my mother would have driven us to the library to check out books, but stealing books was sweeter.

Wavy smiled and withdrew her arm to reveal treasure. The book was thin enough to pass through the return the wrong way, but it wasn’t a kiddy book. Salome, the spine said. We leaned our heads together to consider the strangeness of an adult book with pictures. Odd pictures. The cover was worn and layered with clear tape to protect it, and the pages were heavy. It felt special.

As I reached to turn the page, a pair of headlights fell on us where we crouched beside the book deposit. Wavy darted away, but I froze when my father yelled, “Amy!” Like in a fairy tale, where knowing someone’s name gives you power, my father was able to capture me.

My mother got out of the car and ran across the library parking lot. She looked so ferocious, loping toward me in her nightgown and coat, that I expected a blow. Punishment. Instead, she jerked me into her arms and pressed me to her chest.

After that, I had to tell everything. About the late night wandering. Not the stars. That was still my secret. Mom screamed and Dad yelled.

“I know you mean well, Brenda. You want to help her. I get that. But when her behavior starts endangering our children, it’s time to choose. We can’t keep her. She’s out of control.”

The police came to make a report, to get a picture, to put out a bulletin. The neighbors turned out to look for Wavy, but at dawn she returned on her own.

I woke to more yelling and screaming. That afternoon, Grandma came to get Wavy.

“It’s a horrible idea. A stupid idea,” Mom said. I marveled that she could talk to Grandma like that. It didn’t seem possible to get away with saying something like that to your mother. “You can’t keep an eye on her all the time. You can’t stay up all night.”

“What would be the point? I suppose she will do a little wandering. From what I remember, you and Val did some wandering when you were kids.”

“That was different. We were teenagers and it was a safer time.”

“Pfft,” Grandma said.

“Think of your health, Helen,” Dad said.

“You haven’t been as strong since the chemo, Mom.”

Grandma blew out a big puff of air, the same way she used to exhale cigarette smoke, and shook her head. “Tell me your solution. Foster care? Send her to live with strangers?”

“We’ll keep her,” Mom said.

“No, we won’t.” Dad stood up and blocked my view, so I’ll never know what look passed between him and Mom, but when he went to the counter to pour himself more coffee, Mom nodded.

“She might as well come home with me today,” Grandma said.

I sat on Wavy’s bed while Grandma packed her suitcase. There wasn’t much to pack. A dozen dresses that had survived the Great Unraveling. Some socks and underwear. The hairbrush that she sometimes let me run through her silky, fine hair. The last thing into the suitcase was Dust Bunny, the baby doll.

Grandma put it in the suitcase. Wavy took it out. Mom put it in. Wavy took it out. It was the only toy Wavy had. “Nothing belongs to you,” she told me once when Leslie and I fought over a favorite Barbie that later disappeared.

Wavy took Dust Bunny out of the suitcase and handed it to me. A gift? Then it was time for her to go. Grandma hugged us all, while Wavy stood near the door. Mom tried to hug her, too, but she skittered away, slipping past my mother to hug me. Not close enough for our bodies to touch, she rested her hands on my shoulders, and sniffed my hair. When she released me, she ran out the front door.

“You see how it is,” Mom said.

“She’s her own girl. You were, too.” Grandma smiled and picked up Wavy’s bag.

After Thanksgiving, I found the real gift Wavy had left me in the closet under the stairs. When Mom pulled out the boxes of Christmas decorations, I crawled in to sweep up loose tinsel and a broken ornament. Tucked in the very back was the stolen book: Salome.

Copyright © 2016 by Bryn Greenwood

Interviews

What was the inspiration for this novel?

I was driving through rural Kansas at sunset, and I saw a guy riding a motorcycle down a dirt road through a hay field. My curiosity was immediately piqued. Who was he and where was he going? In that instant, I just knew there was a little girl hiding in the hay. The first scene I wrote was Wavy and Kellen meeting at the edge of that meadow beside a wrecked motorcycle. I didn’t know who they were, but it was obvious to me that they needed each other. Kellen was injured. Wavy was hungry. They were both terribly alone. I felt sure it had been weeks, if not months, since anyone had looked at either of them and acknowledged their humanity. After that, I worked backwards to figure out who Wavy was, who Kellen was, what their story was.

Your biography mentions that you’re the daughter of a “mostly reformed drug dealer.” How much of the story is inspired by your own childhood?

My personal experiences definitely informed some of the details in the book. When I was a kid, my father was a meth dealer, and he lived on an armed compound in the country. As a result of his career choices, I witnessed a lot of wild things and met some unusual people. The other part of my life that I drew heavily on for this book was my habit of getting involved with much older men. Like Wavy, at the age of thirteen, I fell in love with and dated a man more than twice my age. To an outsider, that relationship probably looked inappropriate (and it was certainly illegal), but I have fond memories of my time with him. We had a loving, consensual romance that nurtured me more than a lot of my adult relationships have. That experience gave me insight into Wavy’s motivations, and probably made me more inclined to deal sympathetically with Wavy and Kellen’s situation.

Was it your intention to write a story where conventional ideas of right and wrong are turned upside down?

It’s less about wanting to turn right and wrong upside down, and more about wanting to demonstrate how blurred the line between right and wrong can be. When it comes to All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, the line disappears altogether at some points in the book. Instead of offering moral guideposts, I’m asking readers to suspend their everyday perceptions of morality and sympathize with flawed characters. Often those characters are good people who make bad decisions. Things like poverty, addiction, and abuse lead a lot of people to make decisions that look immoral from the outside, but that make a kind of sense when you’re in that situation. We may be horrified by Kellen’s plans to marry teenaged Wavy, but it’s the only solution he sees for rescuing her from her parents. There are other options open to Aunt Brenda, but she chooses not to exercise them until a crisis forces her hand. Personally, I sympathize with characters who are trying to figure out the least bad thing they can do. Characters in bad situations with limited options are always more compelling to me than characters who have clear boundaries and make neat, practical choices.

Why did you decide to use so many narrators to this story, and how did you choose them?

When I first learned to write short fiction, I was taught to reverse the roles of antagonist and protagonist, and write both versions. The goal was to understand all my characters, even the ones I might not naturally sympathize with. That continues to be part of my creative process. In terms of Wavy’s story, I knew I couldn’t rely on the central characters to give a complete view of her relationship with Kellen, so I went further afield than I usually do. Because I wanted to know what things looked like from all angles, I investigated the story through a lot of peripheral characters, which makes it feel almost like a documentary. Although I ended up with sixteen narrators in the book, I actually wrote a lot more than that, including scenes from the points of view of Val, Liam, and Aunt Brenda. Wavy’s parents didn’t make the cut, because they were so focused on themselves that their narratives derailed the story I wanted to tell. Although Aunt Brenda is the natural antagonist to Wavy, her narrative turned out to be redundant. Aunt Brenda doesn’t need to speak, because the average reader knows exactly what she’s thinking. It’s what we would be thinking if we were in her shoes.

What do you hope readers will take away from this story?

Above all, I hope my book makes people think seriously about the nature of consent and a child’s right to bodily sovereignty. So often, when we speak about consent, we’re talking about sex, but it’s not the only kind of consent that matters. In grappling with the issue of underage sex, people often overlook Liam forcing Wavy to eat, Brenda forcibly restraining Wavy, and all the other nonsexual ways in which Wavy’s consent is violated in the course of the book. Kellen is the only one who regularly seeks her explicit permission for any kind of physical contact. The question of what rights children have is incredibly complicated and there are no easy answers. The subject haunts me, because I worry that a child who has no power to say yes also has no power to say no. Children are regularly abused, because our society fails to listen to them. Even when we do listen, we often don’t believe children. That’s the environment that allows predators in positions of authority to flourish. Secondarily, I hope that readers will spend some time thinking about the nature of family. When our own families let us down, how do we deal with that? How do we constitute new families? How well do we do at accepting the families that people choose, as opposed to the ones they’re born into?

Essay

I often hear from readers who find Wavy and Kellen’s early interactions sweet, but who are deeply troubled by how the relationship evolves. Why can’t their relationship stay platonic? those readers ask.

When I’m writing, my characters frequently do what they want, without regard for what I think should happen. This was very true for Wavy and Kellen. For obvious reasons, I tried repeatedly to keep their relationship platonic until she was older. I threw women at Kellen. I tried to give Wavy other friends. I tried to motivate Aunt Brenda or Miss DeGrassi to get involved. None of it worked, because no one was willing to make the sacrifices Kellen made for Wavy, and there were too many external factors pushing them together.

Even as a child, Wavy is absorbing messages about how to survive in the world as a female. The primary lesson she learns from Val, Sandy, Dee, and even Aunt Brenda is simple: get a man. If you get a man, he’ll take care of you. This is a pressing issue for Wavy, because her parents are failing so spectacularly to provide for her and Donal. As Kellen is the only adult regularly caring for her, it’s hardly surprising that she decides to make him “her man.” Of course, Wavy is at a disadvantage when it comes to securing Kellen. As most of us have experienced, when our friends get into a new relationship, they tend to wander away from us. The whiff of a woman’s perfume on Kellen’s coat does more than make Wavy jealous, it threatens her central position in his life. She can’t afford to lose him, and the obvious way to keep him is to prove to him that she’s a viable sexual partner.

Take Wavy’s entry into puberty and awakening sexuality, her love for Kellen, and her need to keep him attached to her. Mix those all together and it’s easy to understand how, at thirteen years old, she arrives at the night of Kellen’s twenty-sixth birthday, prepared to offer him a sexual relationship.

How Kellen ends up there is also linked to his childhood. As much as we would like his feelings for Wavy to be paternal, they’re not. Paternal for people like Wavy and Kellen is nothing good. In their world, a father is at best someone who neglects you, at worst someone who beats you. Kellen is trying to be better than the father he had, better than the father Wavy has. He’s trying to be her friend. What starts out as an act of kindness to a neglected little girl becomes the closest friendship he’s ever had. Kellen has had a lifetime of being an outsider, and Wavy is not just the first girl he’s ever loved, she’s the first person to love him since his mother died.

Of course, Kellen is also a young man who wants what most young men want: love, companionship, and sex. Wavy offers him the first two for many years, and when she offers him the third, maybe it seems like a natural development. She has become the center of his world, their relationship the only solid one in his life. On the night of his birthday, he’s drunk and she’s dressed up as a reasonable facsimile of a woman. His mistake is almost inevitable, if not entirely forgivable.

Afterwards, what happens follows the same set of guiding stars. When Kellen carries a naked and shivering Wavy up to her bedroom, he concludes that he has three options. I left it to the reader’s imagination to decide which of these options he thinks is “terrible” and which is “too awful to consider.”

Kellen can cross a line that is clearly marked, even in his mind, as wrong. Wavy has offered him a relationship that includes sex, and there is no one in her life to protect her from that kind of predation, except Kellen.

The second option is for him to walk away. He can acknowledge that his feelings for Wavy are inappropriate and that her feelings for him make him a fox guarding a henhouse. Perhaps this would be the most moral choice for him, but if we imagine Kellen exiting Wavy’s life to avoid crossing that line, we must consider the consequences. He ensures that she gets an education, that she eats, that she has clothes and shoes, that her home is clean, that she’s protected from the dangerous people her father’s business has introduced into her life. If Kellen walks away, he leaves an enormous void in Wavy’s life. One that will either go unfilled, or will soon be occupied by a man with fewer scruples than Kellen.

There remains then the third choice: to slow the advance of Wavy’s overtures. Kellen can’t simply push Wavy away without reinforcing a deeply damaging message she has absorbed from her mother. Wavy believes she is dirty, and for Kellen to completely rebuff her would be devastating to her. His explanation that she is “too young” holds no water with Wavy, because she already has an adult’s responsibilities, and the women in her life are already giving her lessons on how to navigate a relationship with a man. Sandy gives her a makeover to make her more sexually attractive. Val lectures her about the importance of birth control, on the assumption that she is already in a sexual relationship with Kellen. In Wavy’s world, she is not too young to take this next step.

More importantly, Val’s lessons remind Wavy that the world is ugly. Men only want one thing. Women only have one function. Therefore, the only reason Kellen wouldn’t be open to an adult relationship with her is that she’s undesirable or “dirty.”

Ultimately, the responsibility for what happens rests on Kellen’s shoulders. Someone with a less dysfunctional upbringing might have found more solutions than he does, but like many adult children of abuse, he is constantly operating under crisis conditions and he has terrible decision making skills. In the moment, seeing the awful thing that he’s allowed to happen, he simply looks for the choice that will cause the least harm. From his perspective, that is to deploy the same methods of negotiation he’s used with Wavy for as long as he’s known her. To delineate and define boundaries and to seek mutual respect. The end result is not one we would wish for any young girl, but what part of Wavy’s life is?