Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined by Danielle Younge-Ullman


 A girl named Ingrid ventures into the wild to heal, in another vibrant addition to YA fiction.

This book was marketed as Wild by Cheryl Strayed, but for teens, and I can see why. Working through a tremendous loss while surrounded by the great equalizer of nature always makes for great literary fodder. In this case, we have our level headed protagonist Ingrid, who grew up traveling all over Europe with her mother, Margot-Sophia Lalonde, a great opera singer. Ingrid’s life revolved around her mother; her mother’s vocal health, her mother’s mental state, her mother’s talent, all were the axis on which the sun rose and set for Ingrid. When (spoiler alert) events make their glamorous life no longer possible, both Ingrid and her mother are forced to acclimate to life in a less romantic world, full of beige suits and middle school bullies.

Everything Beautiful is thoughtful and tentative and never careless when discussing Ingrid’s emotions. It handles these complicated, scary (possibly triggering) emotions with the weight they deserve. Unfortunately, this courtesy is never extended to any of the other characters.

Ingrid is surprised to find herself in a wilderness camp with some rather unsavory folk. There are the likes of Ally, teen mom, Jin, arrested for solicitation, and Tavik, recently incarcerated. These are characters that frequent the pages of YA books, as sidekicks, as warning stories, as brief unlikely friends. They are never the main character. Their emotions are never given space on the page. I really enjoyed Everything Beautiful. I kept turning the pages. I read the whole thing in about two hours. But I kept waiting for Tavik to tell Ingrid his story instead of just waiting around, begging to hear Ingrid’s. I kept waiting for Henry, Harvey and Seth to have a conversation with Ingrid that extended beyond the exposition dump of ‘where are we going? Oh, there, okay.’ I wish the other characters who weren’t Ingrid’s family (weren’t glamorous, white, attractive, stable, financially sound, with bright futures presumably ahead of them) had been more fleshed out. No one’s stories, from Jin to Ally, were remotely resolved or even discussed.

This is certainly realistic. In real life, a short stay in wilderness camp may not prompt any sort of discussion or realization about life, but in a book there must always be a narrative. To not include any of the auxiliary characters in the narrative is an insult to them and their complexity.

There is a shadow lurking over this entire book, and that shadow is unacknowledged privilege. When Ingrid (spoiler alert again) brushes off her encounter with Tavik by cavalierly joking about how she almost lost her virginity to an ex-con, she is engaging in that time honored tradition of using lower class people for a sexual fling and then getting back to her safe life of assortative mating. When Ingrid rejoins with Isaac at the end of the book, the audience can almost breathe a sigh of relief.

At one point Jin calls Ingrid out on her privilege for saying people can figure out what they want to do in college, but this moment is fleeting and is almost the only time Ingrid’s position of privilege is discussed. She is a girl with a killer voice and a bright future and a fully developed sense of self who barely even acknowledges that going home will be different for her fellow camp compatriots. For anyone in the audience not automatically inclined to identify with Ingrid, this is a bitter pill to swallow from a book this self aware.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. I did. It was sensitive and evocative and lyrical. It was well paced and the subject matter intriguing. The tone never veered into melancholy without a bit of hope. Ingrid’s character development was realistic and natural and her voice came alive off the page. I would recommend this book with the warning caveat that none of the other characters are painted with as delicate and generous a brush as Ingrid and her mother.

Next: Review: A Conjuring of Light, V.E. Schwab

Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined comes out on February 21, 2017.