Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Everything Beautiful is not Ruined, by Danielle Younge-Ullman

Picked up Everything Beautiful is not Ruined because of the title: love the title! And the book lives up to it.

It's a contemporary story about a girl on a wilderness therapy trip. The blurb says Wild meets The Breakfast Club, and that pretty much nails it: group of teens with various issues have to survive a hiking trip with some manufactured challenges that make them bond and open up to each other. As someone who backpacks regularly, I thought the wilderness challenge was the weakest part of the book—I got very angry at the some of the things the leaders did ... but I will not rant about that here! (I do agree that nature and wilderness experiences are healing, and I did like the description.) In any case, that was just the setting for the personal journey.

I loved the book because of Ingrid—her voice, and her fascinating past history, and the genuine journey she makes to reconcile with it. She narrates, and I found her snarky sense of humour with barely veiled hurt underneath utterly compelling. I felt so much for her! (And was very angry on her behalf with the irresponsible adults who ... not going to rant. Right.)

The narration is in two parts: letters to her mother describing the wilderness trip, full of sarcasm and anger and "why did you send me here?", and descriptions of her unusual childhood. Ingrid's mother was a famous opera singer, so Ingrid spend her early years traipsing around Europe, surrounded by music. It was an idyllic period in her memory, and then it suddenly ended when her mother lost her voice. Young Ingrid has to grow up quickly to deal with her mother's spiral into depression.

Younge-Ullman makes great use of her structure to create tension. It's obvious that something terrible happened to result in Ingrid's mother sending her on this camp, something Ingrid refuses to talk about even when all her co-campers are revealing their problems. As the stories of her childhood unfold we get closer and closer to understanding what might have happened; meanwhile Ingrid's letters to her mother are resolutely not saying anything even as she's being pushed to a breaking point by the physical and mental challenges of the camp.

I was blown away by the ending, when past and present come together and we find out how hurt Ingrid really is, just as she discovers her own strength and the support around her that she needs. There are some hard things, but the title is true: everything beautiful is not ruined.

I loved the use of music and the exploration of the life of a musician. I loved all the characters, (even the ones I was very angry at!). (And there was one character I loved beyond all measure, but I won't spoil who it is: you'll know who it is when you read it.) I appreciated the nuanced, realistic but hopeful approach to mental illness. This therapy trip doesn't magically fix everything for Ingrid, but the better place she gets to makes sense. There are bits to cry over, but lots of laugh-out-loud humour.

Since I'm still not quite ready to relinquish summer, I'll compare this book to an unusual gelato flavour: blueberry basil, maybe, or lemon lavender. Every bite has different layers of flavour and keeps surprising you with that unexpected hint of herb, which adds the right note of bitterness or spice to counteract the sweetness of the fruit. (Just made my own raspberry-mint sherbet with the last of the garden's raspberries: delicious!)