When 17-year-old Ingrid Burke arrives at Peak Wilderness camp, it is not what she is expecting. For starters, there is no physical camp, with log cabins, a firepit for sing-alongs, and a cozy mess hall serving up macaroni and beef. And while there is adventure, it’s more of the figure-it-out-or-perish variety. Turns out the camp Ingrid’s mother, Margot-Sophia, has forced her to attend in exchange for agreeing to allow her to go off to music school in London is actually some kind of rehabilitation program for at-risk youth.
Among the other campers, there’s a princessy girl (whose mammoth boobs are very popular on Instagram) hoping to prove she’s worthy of regaining custody of her baby; a former drug addict and occasional prostitute atoning for her behaviour at her family’s behest; a gay boy who hopes the experience will allow him to feel closer to God and resist “temptation and sin,” thereby allowing him to be accepted back into the fold by his hyper-conservative, religious family; and a convicted felon there as a condition of his parole.
Ingrid spends much of the novel trying to figure out why, exactly, her mother decided to put her through hell (and some of the situations the author depicts are harrowing, to say the least) before allowing her to pursue her musical ambitions. She has a few theories, mainly that Margot-Sophia, a former opera singer herself, is simply trying to equip Ingrid with the ability to take a beating and get back up, but it also feels like punishment – for having talent of her own, finding joy in it, and wanting, despite Margot-Sophia’s constant efforts to dissuade her, to pursue a career in the very industry that ruined her mother’s life.
Via flashbacks, we learn that Margot-Sophia’s burgeoning career came to a screeching halt when her voice gave out during a performance at London’s Covent Garden. Despite the ministrations of several doctors, it was revealed that the nodes on her vocal chords had caused irreparable damage, and she would never be able to sing professionally again. Shattered, she sank into a deep depression, leaving then 11-year-old Ingrid to basically fend for herself (there was never a father in the picture).
The rest of the novel takes the form of letters Ingrid writes to Margot-Sophia during her time at Peak Wilderness and straight prose sections describing the challenges the kids must endure and the devastating circumstances leading up to Ingrid’s time there.
Ingrid is a gem of a character. Having travelled with her mother for her first 10 years of her life, she is wise beyond her age, and possesses a sardonic wit that plays delightfully against her relative guilelessness, especially when it comes to a boy named Isaac.
With a fragile diva as a mother, Ingrid has had to be fairly self-reliant, though the mother-daughter relationship is interesting: Margot-Sophia is a study in contrasts, alternately determined and delicate, and Ingrid has spent her whole life trying to maintain a balance that allows the two to live in companionable harmony. When her mother is down, Ingrid retreats, but also gets angry. “Why can’t she just GET UP?” she asks during one of her mother’s lengthy spells of self-induced bedridden confinement.
Much of what Ingrid confronts during her time at Peak Wilderness involves finding a way to embrace her own strength while simultaneously releasing herself from the longstanding responsibility of looking after her mom. Near the end of her 21-day camp experience, she writes to Margot-Sophia: “I get it now. Peak Wilderness is geared to breaking down your barriers – physical, psychological, mental. Bringing you face-to-face with the best and worst of yourself, teaching you things you didn’t know about yourself, facing your demons. My demon is you.”
Author Danielle Younge-Ullman writes with a ferocity that suits her subject and characters well. Ingrid is not the only strong member of the multi-layered cast; even the most peripheral characters are given personality, context, and a satisfactory amount of backstory to render them fully formed. There are love interests, of course, and this is the only place the novel falters marginally. Tavik, the ex-con who turns out to be just the distraction Ingrid needs, walks a perfect balance between bad boy and wounded soul, but Ingrid’s high-school crush is another story. Her feelings for Isaac – and the inexplicable intensity of their relationship – are believable enough, but there is little about him as a character that serves to explain why she’s so smitten with him. He’s just a slightly dorky, good-looking guy that gives her the feels. But perhaps that’s the point: when you’re a teenager, that’s all it takes.
Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined is an emotionally resonant, fabulously crafted novel about a young woman figuring out who she is and dealing with some seriously devastating events in her life. You don’t have to be 17 to empathize with Ingrid; her struggles are universal, even if her specific circumstances are not.