30 Apr 2015

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Release Date: 8th January 2015
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 388
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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Summary (from GoodReads): Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him. Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister's recent death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it's unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the 'natural wonders' of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It's only with Violet that Finch can be himself - a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who's not such a freak after all. And it's only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet's world grows, Finch's begins to shrink.

My thoughts: This book will do to suicide what The Fault in Our Stars did for cancer.  If you're into what I like to think of as 'hipster YA' - John Green, Rainbow Rowell, any contemporary YA author that a teenager trying to be 'indie' will enjoy - then you will probably enjoy this book. I enjoyed this book. That said, I  kind of knew where this book was heading from the blurb in the back - when something is described as a cross between The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park, it's probably going to end badly.

When we first meet our narrators, they are both up on the bell tower at their high school, contemplating jumping. Finch talks Violet out of jumping, while framing it so their classmates think that it is Violet who saves his life. Violet has a reputation to uphold - she is popular, and a people pleaser. Finch is known as 'Theodore Freak,' and possibly has untreated bipolar disorder. It puzzles me that although his counsellor tells Finch that he shows the signs of bipolar disorder, it was never addressed in the book. Given Finch fights so hard to stay 'awake,' as he calls it, you would think that he would look into it further, regardless of how his family feels about mental illness. In the end, everyone fails Finch: not just his counsellor, who tells Finch he has bipolar disorder, but also Finch's friends and family, who normalise Finch's behaviour and say, "It's just Finch's thing, it's just what he does." His father is physically abusive; most of the adult figures in Finch's life don't understand mental illness and don't make any effort to. I get it: there's a lot of stigma around mental illness. There are no physical symptoms, so people insist it doesn't exist. It's just - for a book about suicide, it sometimes feels like Niven is romanticising suicide, rather than open up dialogue about it. 

There is a lot to love about All the Bright Places, though. There is some strong characterisation in there: I think out of all the characters, Finch is the most well-developed. SPOILER ALERT: weirdly enough, it was not when Finch was present and narrating that I got to know him - for a lot of the book, I found him hard to read. Perhaps that was Niven's intention - he is suffering from undiagnosed, untreated bipolar disorder, after all. I got to know Finch in the aftermath of his death. Finch sets up a treasure hunt for Violet, and she has to decipher his clues and figure out where he went. Finch ends up being defined by what he leaves behind - the ways in which he changes the people in his life and how he transformed their lives, particularly Violet's. 

The secondary characters had the potential to be a good supporting cast, but they fall to wayside as Finch and Violet's relationship take centre stage. The only one that really stood out for me was Decca, Finch's little sister. The dynamics between her and Finch - it seemed to me that Finch could identify with Decca's low points, and he didn't want Decca to live life the way he did. Charlie and Brenda could've been great characters who provided comic relief when necessary, but they were only ever defined in terms of Finch and Violet, and I never really got to know them. The adult figures in this novel just angered me, because ultimately, they failed Finch.

A lot of reviewers have commented on how beautiful the story is, and how much it affected them, and how it blew them away. In my opinion, All the Bright Places was beautiful and heart-wrenching, but I think it's a book that will divide readers, based on their experiences with mental illness and suicide. For this alone, I would suggest you ignore the reviews and pick up this book for yourself to see where you fall. 

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