Title: All the Bright Places
Author: Jennifer Niven
Format: Paperback, 388 pages
Publication: January 6th 2015 by Knopf/Random House Children’s Books
Source: Bought from Fully Booked
Genre: Fiction—Contemporary, Realistic, Romance, Young Adult
Other keywords: Bullying, Depression and Mental Illness
Theodore Finch is fascinated by death. Every day he thinks of ways he might die, but every day he also searches for—and manages to find—something to keep him here, and alive, and awake.
Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her small Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s death.
When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school—six stories above the ground—it’s unclear who saves whom. And when the unlikely pair teams up on a class project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, they go, as Finch says, where the road takes them: the grand, the small, the bizarre, the beautiful, the ugly, the surprising—just like life.
Soon it’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a bold, funny, live-out-loud guy, who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet forgets to count away the days and starts living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.
I want to begin by clearing the air: I have very conflicting feelings about this book, in that I love parts of it, and others not so much. Also, this is going to be—and it is—a lengthy article. So if you’re not exactly up to that, you can read the next paragraph and just jump straight to the second-to-the-last one.
All the Bright Places is a thoughtful, provocative tale about mental illness and teenagers, speckled with bons mots. And though it has off-putting turns, it is poignant all the same. Niven has written people. Not just mere characters but actual people, with actual emotions, actual stories, actual battles. So painfully real it left me in a trance after closing the last page.
“It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other recognizable disease just to make it simple for me and also for them. Anything would be better than the truth.”
The novel switches between perspectives from Finch and Violet. And if you do anything, do not attempt to find out what Finch’s problem is before diving in. I made this mistake (I didn’t research; I was listening to a podcast and bam!) and it marked a substantial difference. Because I imagine it would’ve been more excruciatingly gripping to guess what’s the matter with him. See, Theodore Finch is interesting. He’s compulsive and at times reckless but funny and endearing, to boot. He slips into momentary pretentiousness but that only renders him more charming. Early on, it’s apparent there’s something amiss. And with each passing chapter, the tension only accumulates. I’ve often hear people describe a character as someone who “jumps off the page/screen” and this is a spot-on description for Theodore Finch. Then there’s Violet Markey who—this is not a spoiler—suffers from PTSD. She’s using her sister’s death as a wall around her. I’ve read quite a few books about depression to gather that while for outsiders it looks easy—get out more, talk to someone, get over yourself—it’s really hard to move past the black slug (as Jasmine Warga’s Aysel puts it). And this is the main thing about Violet; she acknowledges the world outside her wall but she’s waist-deep the black slug.
“Worthless. Stupid. These are the words I grew up hearing. They’re the words I try to outrun, because if I let them in, they might stay there and grow and fill me up and in, until the only thing left of me is worthless stupid worthless stupid worthless stupid freak. And then there’s nothing to do but run harder and fill myself with other words: This time will be different. This time, I will stay awake.”
Another thing that sets All the Bright Places apart is the nuanced backstories. The bad guy isn’t just a bad guy and the good guy isn’t just a good guy. Plus, the parents are present. There’s something to be said of parental roles in young adult fiction and Niven captures the two sides of the spectrum with an informed tone. There is this one harrowing scene, which I hope no one has to experience ever, that sent a sick punch in my guts. And then you get to the author’s note and it’s a whole new level of visceral reaction.
“The smile I give her is the best smile I have, the one that makes my mother forgive me for staying out too late or for just generally being weird.”
I have issues with the romance department. And I don’t want to be the guy who argues that love isn’t necessary in this one but I’m gonna be that guy. Because and especially because it has a beginning I do not buy. It felt like it was somehow forced coming from Finch’s viewpoint. I also think the later parts drag. Of course I want closure but I think it still could’ve been achieved a few pages shorter. Albeit, I’m being highly subjective in here. I’m not saying Niven did wrong. It’s her novel. It’s Finch and Violet’s story. The author has every right.
“”She was my best friend.”“I’ve never had one. What’s it like?”“I don’t know. I guess you can be yourself, whatever that means—the best and the worst of you. And they love you anyway. You can fight, but even when you’re mad at them, you know they’re not going to stop being your friend.””
For fans of John Green (yes, the blurb got this one right) and Jasmine Warga’s My Heart and Other Black Holes, you want to read this one. All the Bright Places does a great service to this ever shifting and vibrant community by talking about a topic that most people would much rather prefer not to talk about and it’s for this reason that I’m grateful Jennifer Niven had her YA debut.
Fun fact: I never, for once, read before how one’s handwriting is characterized like “chicken scratch.” And yet, this is thrown around inexhaustibly when I was growing up. So there’s that.
All the Bright Places is Jennifer Niven’s first book for young adult readers, but she has written four novels for adults—American Blonde, Becoming Clementine, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and Velva Jean Learns to Drive—as well as three nonfiction books, The Ice Master, Ada Blackjack, and The Aqua Net Diaries, a memoir about her high school experiences. Although she grew up in Indiana, she now lives with her fiancé and literary cats in Los Angeles, which remains her favorite place to wander.
Have you read All the Bright Places? If not, did I convince you to pick it up? I’m curious: have you noticed the recent rise, in YA specifically, in books dealing with depression and mental illness? And do you have recommendations up your sleeve regarding this? I’d love to hear your thoughts!