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On The Shelf: ‘Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined’ by Danielle Younge-Ullman

‘Sup readers? Welcome back to On The Shelf— if you’ve been following along in the past few weeks, you know this is the Fan Fest column about books, and whether or not you want to put them on your shelf, or purchase them on an ereader. As much as every bookworm wishes they had a library like the one from Beauty and the Beast, that’s just not the case for most folks. Plus, shelf-space is often shared with geeky collectibles and knickknacks, whereas ereaders offer the comfort of infinite space via cloud storage. Still, it’s not the same thing as picking up an actual book; appreciating the heft, smelling the pages, feeling the paper against your fingertips. All that is to say, deciding which books are good enough to end up on your shelves can be a struggle, which is what I’m (presumably, anyway) here for.

My last couple of reviews (particularly last week’s) haven’t exactly been favourable, and between those, and  personal reading I was hyped for but let down by, I was feeling it: the beginning of a reading slump. That “blah” feeling when no book, no matter what you read, piques your interest. As a last ditch effort to stave off said reading slump, I blindly picked up Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined by Danielle Younge-Ullman and: oh. My. Gosh.

The book’s blurb describes it as “Wild meets The Breakfast Club in this story of a girl who must survive an extreme wilderness experience to prove to her mother that she has the strength to pursue her dreams.” Honestly, to me that sounded like a safe contemporary with a couple of feel-good moments that might actually be good. I was wrong. There is nothing “safe” about Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined. I don’t even know if I can summarize it in a way that does it justice. Believe me, I’ve tried, but nothing adequate seems to come to mind, so I’m just gonna borrow the book’s official summary:

Then

Ingrid traveled all over Europe with her opera star mother, Margot-Sophia. Life was beautiful and bright, and every day soared with music.

Now

Ingrid is on a summertime wilderness survival trek for at-risk teens: addicts, runaways, and her. She’s fighting to survive crushing humiliations, physical challenges that push her to her limits, and mind games that threaten to break her.

Then

When the curtain fell on Margot-Sophia’s singing career, they buried the past and settled into a small, painfully normal life. But Ingrid longed to let the music soar again. She wanted it so much that, for a while, nothing else mattered.

Now

Ingrid is never going to make it through this summer if she can’t figure out why she’s here . . . and why the music really stopped.

Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined is my first experience with Younge-Ullman’s writing, but it certainly will not be my last. The book is told entirely from Ingrid’s perspective, either in journal entries (letters. Most of them filled with things she’s too afraid to tell her impassioned mother), flashbacks, or present-day prose about her experience at Peak Wilderness, a program that reads more like jail with no actual prison structure (I’m reminded of Penny’s mom in 2007’s Hairspray screeching “Having nothing builds character!”). At Peak Wilderness, Ingrid, who has never lived without creature comforts, is forced to part with her basic hygiene products, and accept the reality that the forest is now her bathroom. Using the woods as a toilet comes with the added (mandatory) bonus of stuffing her soiled toilet paper in a Ziploc bag and keeping it in on her person because not even nature wants to smell that.

Younge-Ullman’s writing is easy to fall into. The world she builds is believable— I would never sign up for something like Peak Wilderness and so, found myself cringing in a variety of ways when Ingrid combated the wilderness (and herself, and even her mother) but in the good way (no bathrooms? Cringe. Having to bunk with a guy who thinks it’s okay to loom his large, furry, smelly buttocks and related appendages in your face? Mega-cringe and also tamping down the urge to barf). But disgust wasn’t the only emotion I felt while reading— I was joyful and pissed off and amused, and by the end, I felt something akin to a burning behind my eyes.

Ingrid, as a main character, is really something special. She is well-educated and comes from money and even, thanks to her mother, a background of fame and upper-class luxuries. But she is also intelligent— academically, and sharp as a tack when it comes to reading people. While she has lived a life of comfort, her intense relationship with her mother reveals she has also lived through things that no amount of money can compensate for, giving her both a steady inner strength and a heart-wrenching fragility. Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined offers a stark view through the eyes of a child who had to grow up too fast and raise herself in lieu of an absent mother, who was right there, larger-than-life, but impenetrable, unreachable. The novel offers a candid look at mental illness, and above all, loving through it.

One of the things I most appreciated about Younge-Ullman’s book is that it was almost completely grounded in the love and life of a family. Ingrid does experience romance, but even that is filtered through the lens of her household.

Utterly spellbinding, insightful and without a doubt (even though February isn’t over) one of my favourite books of the year, I am beyond excited to say that yes, Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined is a wonderful story that’s earned a spot on the shelf. You can grab a copy here.

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