Book Review: All the Bright Places
Also by this author: Holding Up the Universe
Published by Knopf on January 6th 2015
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Synopsis & Review:
With its realistic and honest portrayal of someone living with a mental illness, All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven is one of the most moving and thought-provoking novels I’ve ever read. I finished reading it a couple of nights ago and have been trying to gather my many thoughts about it ever since in hopes of doing justice to not only how beautifully written this story is, but also to how important it is because of the major issues that it highlights such as mental illness and the stigma that surrounds it, as well as teen suicide and bullying.
At the center of All the Bright Places are Theodore Finch and Violet Markey, two high school seniors who on the surface appear to be complete opposites. Theodore (or Finch as he is called by pretty much everyone) is bit of an outcast, often referred to as a freak or weirdo by his classmates. He spends most of his free time either writing music or fantasizing about death, in particular all of the possible ways he can end his own life. At the opposite end of the social spectrum is Violet, who is attractive, popular, and a member of the cheerleading team.
This unlikely pair becomes connected in the novel’s opening scene which takes place on the ledge of the school’s bell tower. Plagued by an unnamed condition which he says makes him “sleep” for weeks at a time, Finch has climbed up there to contemplate what it would be like to commit suicide by jumping off the tower. He decides this would probably not be his preferred method, but as he turns to leave, he unexpectedly encounters Violet, who has apparently been having suicidal thoughts of her own. We then learn that Violet has recently suffered a tragedy that she can’t seem to get beyond – the death of her older sister and best friend Eleanor. Because she feels like she is just drowning in her grief and unable to move forward, Violet is having suicidal thoughts.
Finch, his own thoughts of suicide momentarily forgotten, does everything he can to talk Violet down to safety. He then dedicates himself to helping Violet overcome her thoughts of suicide. Although she is initially reluctant to even associate with Finch because of his reputation as a ‘freak’, Violet finally gives in and agrees to work with him on a school project which requires them to journey around their home state taking in its “natural wonders”.
The bulk of the novel focuses on the relationship between Violet and Finch as they work on this project and really get to know one another. Their journey together is an emotional roller coaster – it will make you laugh and it will bring you to tears, but what they find along the way is that they can draw strength from each other as they each battle their demons. Finch really pushes Violet to start working through her grief and seeing that her own life is worth living, and Violet helps Finch in that he can let his guard down around her and just be himself. As he focuses his attention on Violet, he becomes more and more determined not to let the ‘sleep’ take him again.
What I loved about All the Bright Places:
I think what makes All the Bright Places such a powerful read is that by having Violet and Finch tell their story, Niven takes us directly into the minds of these two troubled teens. We experience firsthand exactly what Finch and Violet are feeling as they think about killing themselves and what goes through their minds as they struggle just to exist from day to day. We’re seeing what Finch and Violet have been trying so hard to hide from their parents, friends, teachers, and counselors. It’s raw and unfiltered emotion and it will definitely make you think twice when you look at someone and assume that you know what they’re going through when you really have no idea what’s going on in their head or how much they might be struggling even though they’re trying to put on a brave face.
I also loved that Niven makes Finch the voice for those who are afraid to seek help for mental illness because they fear being labeled as “mentally ill”. He’s such a likeable and relatable character that we as readers desperately want him to get the help he needs, but at the same time, he makes us see why it’s so hard to do so. Finch embodies the fear that if diagnosed, in the eyes of others, he will become that diagnosis and nothing more:
“Moody Finch. Angry Finch. Unpredictable Finch. Crazy Finch. But I’m not a compilation of symptoms. Not a casualty of shitty parents and an even shittier chemical makeup. Not a problem. Not a diagnosis. Not an illness. Not something to be rescued. I’m a person.”
Finch even takes this a step further in the sacrifice that he makes for Violet, even when he barely knows her. When he talks Violet down off that ledge, he lets everyone believe she is the one who saved him rather than the other way around. He knows firsthand how crippling labels can be and he wants to protect her from that. So he takes on the label that would have otherwise have been given to her. He’s the suicidal one, not her. It’s a touching gesture.
‘All the Bright Places’ is such an important book because it shines light on the very problematic issue that a person would contemplate suicide rather than seeking medical help for mental illness. That should not be the case at all and it’s something we as a society, starting with our young people, need to address.
This is also a book that I wish had been around when I was teaching high school because of the way it spotlights the potential consequences of bullying. Because the characters in ‘All the Bright Places’ are so easy to relate to (Didn’t we all go to school with a Roamer, the guy who just lives to build himself up by putting others down?), I think this book could start a much needed dialogue in schools to educate students about the power of words. In this day and age when teen suicide rates are so high and school shootings are so prevalent, you just never know if your words are going to be the ones to push someone over the edge.
What I didn’t like about All the Bright Places:
I can’t really say there was anything I disliked, but I will say that I was so frustrated with the adults in this book. I know Finch was doing everything he could to keep people from realizing something was wrong with him, and I understand how that can happen in real-life situations as well, but it still seemed like someone in his family should have noticed that something was off with him. When your teenage son randomly disappears for days at a time, it doesn’t seem right to just accept it as ‘Oh, that’s just Finch doing his Finch thing.’ Maybe I’m just hyper-sensitive to it since I’m a mom, but as my own son gets older, I hope that I remember the lesson of this book and that I make it a point to watch my child for any signs that something might be wrong.
Who would I recommend this book to?
EVERYONE! No, seriously. I think high school and college students would find it a meaningful read, as would parents and educators. It’s a beautiful story about painful truths. It’s bright, dark, and everything in between, and is a book that will stick with you.
Rating: 5 stars
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