Going on a three-week wilderness experience in exchange for attending the prestigious music school of her choice sounded like a fair deal to Ingrid Burke. Except the camp programme is not about comfy cabins and day hikes as she was expecting; instead, the days are filled with rugged hiking and canoeing for at-risk teens.
The experience tests and teaches Ingrid in ways that she is not expecting, and she discovers a strength within that she never knew she had.
This is the premise of Danielle Younge-Ullman’s Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined.
Ingrid’s mother, Margot-Sophia Lalonde, had been a famous opera singer who had travelled the world performing, taking Ingrid along with her. Until something went wrong and Margot-Sophia lost everything she had worked for. Moving to a permanent home in Toronto, Canada, both mother and daughter have difficulty adjusting to the change. Overcome with depression, Margot-Sophia stays in bed, forcing 11-year-old Ingrid to turn parent and care for mum and herself. While things eventually improve, the experience leaves deep emotional scars on both of them.
Ingrid’s dream is to be a singer, performing on the world stage, just as her mother had. Margot-Sophia, however, wants none of this for her child, having been burned by her experience. She wants to spare Ingrid the pain and humiliation that she had been subjected to. And although Ingrid tries to listen to her mother, her passion for performing outweighs everything else and she sneaks off to audition for both her school’s musical and a music school. When Margot-Sophia finds out about this, she strikes that deal with Ingrid: that she can go to her music school if she toughs out Peak Wilderness.
The story unfolds through journal entries and letters Ingrid writes to her mother from camp, juxtaposed with a narrative that sheds the light on what brought Ingrid to the current timeline, giving the reader a clearer view of her past and her character.
Surprisingly, despite my initial impression, I found Ingrid to be an extremely likeable and relatable character who had me rooting for her success. Having travelled with her mother for the first 10 years of her life, and having to care for her mother, has made her wise beyond her years, and her dry sardonic wit shines through in her letters and her interactions with her camp mates.
Her emotional journey of self-discovery is a perfect blend of resolve, ambition, passion and determination. It’s a testament to Younge-Ullman’s skilful writing that I became as emotionally invested in Ingrid’s journey as Ingrid herself is.
While Ingrid’s character is great, the only two other characters that I could relate to were Margot-Sophia and Andreas, Ingrid’s stepfather. Margot-Sophia is perfectly captured as a woman who lost everything she worked for and only wants to protect her daughter, although her methods don’t endear her to the reader. Andreas is a nice surprise as a stepfather – he treats Ingrid well, and loves her mother through all her ups and downs. The rest of the characters lack depth, and Younge-Ullman’s attempt to turn cliches around fall a little flat.
Many young adult fiction novels have begun to focus on serious, contentious and very contemporary issues such as mental health, bullying and sexual assault. Younge-Ullman joins the authors who tackle these issues and manages to pull it off. Mostly. She handles the mental health problems very skilfully, but her take on sexual assault is mediocre at best, as if she is uncomfortable writing about the issue.
Overall, Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined is an interesting read, one that deals with rising up and finding your inner strength.
Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined
Author: Danielle Younge-Ullman
Publisher: Viking, young adult contemporary fiction