All the Bright Places: Review

All the Bright Places: ReviewAll the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Published by Random House on January 6, 2015
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 384 pages
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads

two-half-stars

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.

This is an intense, gripping novel perfect for fans of Jay Asher, Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Gayle Forman, and Jenny Downham from a talented new voice in YA, Jennifer Niven.

I’m a black sheep with this one, you guys. (Baa.) But I was really underwhelmed by All The Bright Places.

I suspect I will be in the minority here, so, you know, your mileage may (and probably will) vary. But this book features a number of things I don’t care for: most prominently, I don’t tend to like books where one character changes another character’s life (by being irrepressibly quirky, or by teaching them to see the boring old world around them with new eyes, or by being impossibly good) View Spoiler »and then dies « Hide Spoiler, leaving main character changed for good and with a renewed sense of hope and potential. You know – it’s where characters aren’t important in-and-of themselves but are important for the transformative effect they exert on other people’s lives. (Think of the manic pixie dream girl, something along these lines.) And … All the Bright Places was a bit like this for me.

I will try not to be super spoilery, but, you know, proceed with caution. Additionally, if you’re triggered by reading about suicidal ideation, you might want to skip this review as well as this book.

All the Bright Places opens with our heroine, Violet, on the rooftop of the school, contemplating suicide. Her classmate Finch, who is up there for much the same purpose, talks her out of it. In the aftermath, Finch frames the entire event so the rest of the student body thinks Violet saved his life rather than vice versa; Violet has a reputation to uphold, whereas Finch (due to an undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder, which spoiler alert, remains untreated for the entirety of the book) is estranged from his classmates, who call him “Theodore Freak” and do awful things like write articles in the school gossip rag where they speculate that he’s Most Likely To Commit Suicide and such. So Finch figures he’s less to lose and protects Violet, thus initiating a relationship that covers the rest of the book.

Violet smiles at Finch and he’s smitten; he pursues her aggressively and teams up with her for a class project where they have to check out a few local wonders. They discover new things about an ordinary place they’d taken for granted and fall in love. Finch helps Violet to begin to move past her sister’s death – the event that had her up on the rooftop of the school; she’s able to do things she hadn’t been able to do in the last year (complete school assignments, write creatively, ride in cars, etc). But while Violet’s achieving some degree of closure, Finch isn’t getting help.

There were a few things that really bothered me about their relationship – and the romance is pretty central to the novel, so if you aren’t on-board with that, it’s difficult to enjoy the book. Firstly, Finch pursues Violet too aggressively for me (and, as he tells her, on the basis of a smile). She smiles at him; he’s hooked. He creates a Facebook page just to talk to her. (And oh man, do not even get me started on the way they use Virginia Woolf here.) He coerces her into being his teammate on a group project (he raises his hand and says “I choose Violet Markey” in front of everyone; Violet is busy trying not to sink into the floor). She later says, “You ambushed me in front of everyone,” and he’s like, “Duh, you wouldn’t have worked with me otherwise.” And like, that’s precisely the point. Her wants and needs should be important!

He makes her break her the only ground rule she establishes for their group project. She’s scared of cars because she was in the car accident that killed her sister. Second or third place they choose to check out? He goads her into getting into the car. (He says, “You need shoving, not pushing.”) And like, okay. In the end, it is healthier than not for Violet to adjust to riding in cars again. But he shoves her in ways I’m uncomfortable with. (And to be clear, she should absolutely NOT want to be in a car with him; a few chapters before he pressures her into getting into the car, he’s driving recklessly.)

Finch isn’t a bad guy. He’s very much struggling with his own issues in the book. And I don’t expect romances to be perfect. But I don’t want to idealize relationships in which one person wants to fix another, and where boundaries aren’t respected, and I feel like the book wants me to be 100% into Violet + Finch in love. (Other minor pet peeves, and I feel like his happens all the time – teen boys giving teen girls nicknames that show how they’ve been reshaped / rebranded by love. I *hate* this – a name is such a fundamental marker of identity – and it’s pervasive. Ultraviolet Remarkabley, ick. Also, Finch talks about how he likes Violet’s shapely figure – she doesn’t look like a boy, like soooo many other girls at school. JERK. You can talk about how you like something without putting other things down, okay?) So that’s one thing.

My second, biggest problem with the book is the way in which Finch’s own mental health is treated. It’s pretty clear from the beginning of the book – and through Finch’s narration – that he’s struggling with undiagnosed, untreated bipolar disorder. And, bah, the book is just CHOCK-FULL of people who fail Finch. His family and friends treats his frequent disappearances and depressive episodes as normal. His mother doesn’t understand mental illness. His father is physically abusive. The one teacher who recognizes that Finch has bipolar disorder … tells him that and then watches him get expelled from school without doing anything, presumably. I don’t have a problem with any of this, per se – there’s a lot of stigma around mental health and people don’t always understand and sometimes everyone is the worst. But, for me, the book failed Finch as well.

View Spoiler »

Maybe not so much of a spoiler, as Finch thinks about, writes about, and attempts to commit suicide more than once during this book, but the book closes with Finch’s suicide. Violet finds out Finch has been living in his closet because he is trying really, really hard to fight a depressive episode. She tells her parents to try to get Finch psychiatric help. Finch disappears. (And like, problem one for me – therapeutic options aren’t really considered for Finch; Violet believes that trying to get Finch help is “her fault.”)

He tells his family he’ll be gone for awhile and starts sending Violet cryptic messages. (His family doesn’t want to call the police or do anything; Violet’s family doesn’t do anything.) DAYS GO BY. NO ONE DOES ANYTHING. Then everyone gets a bunch of farewell emails and Violet knows where to find him and he’s dead.

Don’t worry, though. All of his text messages to Violet were a bunch of clues to all of the places (bright places?) they hadn’t finished visiting yet. And the final 30-40 pages of the book become this incredibly disconcerting treasure hunt, where Violet (and the reader) is asked to follow Finch around to all the places he visited before he died and discover what he’s left behind for Violet. And this treasure hunt is never, ever about Finch or his illness – it’s about Violet, as it has been since the beginning.

For example: unlike the rest of the novel, we lose access to his thoughts the moment he runs away. It okay, though, because it’s never really been about him – it’s all about how his parting messages to Violet further transform her. Finch’s treasure hunt is set up to continue to change Violet’s life and make her whole: i.e., she’s finally able to speak to her parents about Eleanor’s death; one of the final stops, “The Ultraviolet Apocalypse,” draws on Finch’s nickname for her; she and Finch’s friends celebrate his life.

The novel closes with Violet reflecting that Finch’s epitaph is that he “will always be here, in the offerings and people I left behind.” And Violet’s closing thoughts are that she is “no longer rooted, but gold, flowing, [and] I feel a thousand capacities spring up in me.” Transformation complete. Mic drop, we out.

For me, this felt like a real problem. I feel like the novel romanticizes Finch’s mental illness and never engages with it seriously. The cleverness of the treasure hunt Finch sets up for Violet at the end really bothered me; in some ways, what Violet does there is learn how to read Finch right – she’s forced to decipher his clues, and figure out where he’s been, and finish the project they started together – but her success in this felt ultimately meaningless to me. (Why wasn’t anyone – his parents, his friends, his teachers, Violet – reading him right for the entire book?! It means jack to me after he’s dead!)

Finch’s story really ends up being about, as Violet says, “what he leaves behind:” how he has changed and transformed the lives of those around him – Violet’s in particular. It’s never really about him, and I hated that. I wanted his life to matter in and of itself.

« Hide Spoiler

If you want another review that thinks critically about the portrayal of Finch’s mental illness in All The Bright Places, check out the excellent blog, Disability in Kid Lit. Alex’s review is great.

If you want another book about teen suicide that treats the topic in an altogether different (and IMO, much, much better) way, check out Jasmine Warga’s My Heart and Other Black Holes. SPOILER ALERT, our very own Kim will be reviewing it here tomorrow. And Wendy’s reaction to the first few chapters of All the Bright Places can be found here.

So. Did you read All the Bright Places? What’d you think? I’m ok with being a lone black sheep (baa) and would still love to hear how other people read this one.

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